By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
DUMBO never had much experience with elephants (leaving aside the Walt Disney elephant character called "Dumbo") until now.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus kicked off this year’s season in Brooklyn with a preview of their show as a crowd of nearly 500 people were on hand at the intersection of Old Fulton and Water Streets on Wednesday morning.
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz declared it Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Day in Brooklyn. The event kicked off with the King Charles Unicycle Troupe, the world-famous Ringling Bros. clowns and the “dancing divas” which are eight female Asian elephants who danced and ate food to the amazement of the nearly 100 students from P.S. 287 that were on hand.
“It was awesome,” said Amari Walters-Spivey from P.S. 287. “I’ve never seen elephants before.”
“It was exciting,” said 3-year-old Dylan from DUMBO. “The elephants were big and stinky.” Dylan's twin Abby enthused, "They ate watermelons and apples!" Their caregiver Nina said the kids were probably going to go to the circus at Barclays.
Not everyone was as enamored with the acts as the children, however. On hand protesting the event were about 30 members from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“We want people to know that Ringling Bros. beats and abuses elephants and other animals,” said Ashley Byrne, manager of campaigns for PETA. “We think that if children could see the kind of cruelty going on behind the scenes at RB, they would go kicking and screaming out from under the big top.”
PETA claims to have undercover videos that show, among other things, elephants beaten with bullhooks near their ears and heads and baby elephants beaten and prodded with an electric prod.
Ringling Bros.’ animal trainers deny those claims. “We’ve got a whole animal care team that devotes their lives to bathing them, exercising them, and providing them with fresh fruit and water and a large herd to socialize with,” explained Ryan Henning, the assistant animal superintendent for Ringling Bros.
“The care is 24/7. It’s the best in the world, we’ve got the best people around the world devoted to caring for the animals,” he said.
As for the claim that the bullhooks, which are training devices used that have a sharp steel hook and poker on the end of it, harm the animals, Ringling Bros. denies that the tool does any harm to the elephants.
“Elephants are very intelligent animals," Henning said. "90 percent of the time we will use verbal commands with them and don't even need the [bullhooks]. However, in a situation like this, sometimes they are not focused on the verbal commands because there is so much activity, and we use the [bullhook] to simply guide them.”
Henning also noted that the average age for Asian elephants is about 45, but 12 of his 44 elephants are over the age of 50. This, he says, shows that they are healthy and just as happy living in captivity. He also pointed out that they use Asian rather than African elephants because unlike African elephants, Asian elephants are near extinction, and Ringling Bros. is committed to helping to rebuild their population.
The circus will be doing 23 shows at the Barclays Center running through April 1. Besides elephants the show also features horses, snakes, tigers, donkeys, ferrets, rabbits and dogs. That is in addition to the many human acts it has including clowns, human cannonballs and many others.