Why Is the State of Wisconsin Propping Up a Dying and Cruel Industry? (Video)

As the public learns the truth about the abuse inherent in wild animal circuses, people are turning their backs on this cruel industry. State governments across America have played an instrumental role in protecting wild animals long exploited for circuses. Rhode Island and California passed laws banning the use of bullhooks—the sharp, fireplace-poker-like weapons that circuses rely on to terrorize elephants and force them to perform unnatural and often painful tricks. The Illinois and New York state legislatures recently passed bans on traveling elephant acts. Other states are exploring similar measures. 


But one state in the union has so far refused to see the writing on the wall and instead is going to great—and expensive—lengths to condone and even subsidize cruelty to animals. Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation opened a new bypass in the town of Baraboo, home to the Circus World Museum and former headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus. The bypass is part of an $85 million taxpayer-funded project that memorializes the state’s perverse commitment to cruelty: Overpasses that are part of the project are adorned with circus train cars and a line of elephants. Nearby road signs direct drivers to Circus World.

While facilities across the world reconsider their practices vis-à-vis complex, intelligent and sensitive wild animals, Circus World has dug in its heels, insisting on continuing to feature acts with documented records of abuse and endangerment. Circus World has partnered with Carson & Barnes, a notorious outfit, to supply elephants for rides and circus tricks. Heartbreaking undercover video footage shows Carson & Barnes’ head trainer viciously attacking elephants with bullhooks and electric prods while screaming at them. The animals—including Becky, one of the elephants currently at Circus World—cry out in terror.

Carson & Barnes also has a history of failing to properly care for elephants—including while at Circus World. Just last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected Carson & Barnes at Circus World and cited it for failing to provide adequate veterinary care. The same thing happened a few years prior, when an inspector discovered an underweight elephant at Circus World with visible hip and shoulder bones. This elephant died not too long later, having lost 500 pounds over just a few months. 

After the elephant died it was discovered that she had tuberculosis—a potentially deadly disease that captive elephants often carry and can spread to humans, even without any direct contact, since it’s airborne. Seven people recently contracted TB after being around infected elephants at a zoo. Nine got it from a former circus elephant.

Despite these very real dangers—which have been underscored by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA—and despite having had numerous elephants with tuberculosis, Carson & Barnes has repeatedly failed to take proper precautions, such as documenting testing for elephants and employees. It has even illegally hauled unpermitted elephants into Wisconsin to display them at Circus World, including one who had been exposed to TB.

There’s simply no excuse for condoning this abuse and public endangerment. And yet the state of Wisconsin is set to approve $1 million of taxpayer money to prop up struggling Circus World, enabling it to continue to partner with cruel, irresponsible exhibitors.

It’s time for Wisconsin to stop living in the last century. If it’s going to give Circus World any taxpayer money, the state must insist that the facility get with the times and stop featuring cruel, outmoded, and dangerous animal acts.

Just as the only human “freaks” remaining at Circus World are life-sized statues, so too should it be with elephants and other wild animals. PETA stands ready to donate Ella PhantzPeril, a sculpture depicting a tearful elephant in chains who has her own storied history to the museum, if it agrees to no longer exploit wild animals.

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