Champaign mayor not inclined to take up elephant issue

Champaign mayor not inclined to take up elephant issue

CHAMPAIGN – With a circus set to come to Champaign on Friday and Saturday, an animal rights organization is urging city council members to enact an ordinance banning the use of devices that can cause pain or injury to elephants.

But the mayor of Champaign says he doesn't plan to take up the issue.

And the circus denies it harms its animals.

Lisa Wathne, the captive exotic animal specialist with People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, widely known as PETA, faxed the letter Monday morning to Mayor Jerry Schweighart and the city council.

The letter tells them about the upcoming performances of the Carson & Barnes Circus, set to appear in Meijer's south parking lot, with shows at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday and 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.

The circus will appear in Ervin Park in Tuscola on Thursday, with 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. performances.

Wathne said PETA has video footage, which she said would be provided to the city, of a Carson & Barnes animal care director "attacking terrified elephants with sharp metal bullhooks and electric prods."

"The use of bullhooks results in pain, suffering and trauma, including lacerations, puncture wounds and abscesses," she wrote. "Although elephants' skin appears tough, it is so sensitive that elephants can feel the pain of an insect bite."

Wathne said in an interview that a bullhook resembles a fireplace poker, with a steel hook and a steel tip.

"You'll never see an elephant trainer without a bullhook in their hand," she said. "It's through the use of these implements that they induce the fear in the elephants to perform."

Wathne said she realizes it is too late for the city council to enact an ordinance banning such devices used on elephants this week. But she said she hoped the city council might consider such an ordinance in coming months.

Wathne said she didn't know of any city council that had banned the use of such devices yet.

Schweighart said Monday he was not going to pursue the issue.

"Animal rights groups can pursue it, but I'm not, not when we only have a circus come to town every 20 years," he said.

Council member Ken Pirok said he probably wouldn't request a study session on the issue. But he said he might ask city staff to do some research on the subject.

If the research indicates there is a problem, "I might be willing to consider a study session," he said.

Carson & Barnes Circus, Inc., is based in Hugo, Okla., but a phone number listed on its Web site was not associated with the circus.

But its Web site,, addresses the PETA elephant and animal abuse allegations in detail.

It states that no animal works more than two or three hours per day and that, most performing animals "work for just a few minutes, twice a day."

"An average day in the life of a Carson & Barnes Circus animal includes feeding, training, rehearsal and play," the Web site states. "For the most part, our animals spend more than half of the day eating, sleeping and socializing with other animals."

Animal handlers watch closely as the animals socialize and create routines based on natural behavior, the Web site said. The handlers then train the animals by using "voice recognition and rewards to encourage the animals to learn a set routine."

Elephants born to the circus don't start performing until age 2, and when it's time for an elephant to retire, they "spend their 'golden years' with our herd in Choctaw County, Okla., under the watchful eye of animal care experts," the Web site states.