Last week, in an alarming incident at the Syria Shrine Circus in Pittsburgh, a frightened camel sent six injured children and one adult to the hospital. The camel became spooked while giving rides, reportedly after a child threw a shovel at the animal. A circusgoer captured much of the chaos on video and it shows the camel bucking wildly and running amok. Two children fell off the camel and an adult passenger dangled precariously from the animal’s saddle during the ordeal. People could be heard screaming and circus employees scrambled to contain the panicked camel and rescue the rider.
Here’s the thing: last December, when the Pittsburgh city council voted 6-3 to ban bullhooks, electric prods, whips and other weapons commonly used to train and control animals used in circuses, one of the most vocal opponents was the Syria Shrine. The Syria Shrine is the Pittsburgh chapter of Shriners International, a worldwide fraternity of 200 temples. When the vote came up last year, not only did Syria Shrine oppose the ban on cruel training tools, it legally challenged the ban, so that the circus, which it stages each year, could continue to include elephants, camels and other wild animals.
This is not the first dangerous incident involving unpredictable wild animals at a Shrine Circus. Here are a few that have occurred just since 2010: three elephants performing for a Shrine circus in Missouri pushed through an arena door and rampaged in the parking lot, damaging cars and sustaining injuries; a woman attending the Shrine circus in Kansas came within two feet of an escaped tiger in the restroom after the tiger bolted at the end of a performance; and an elephant killed a handler while performing at a Shrine circus in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
A 2017 HSUS undercover investigation of a tiger act performing for Shrine circuses documented cruel treatment of tigers by Ryan Easley of the ShowMe Tigers act. The eight tigers featured in the act were trained and handled through the violent use of whips and sticks, forced to perform tricks that could lead to physical ailments, and left in cramped transport cages when not performing. Whatever the circus, it’s the same old story once you get behind the scenes to look at the status of the animals used.
There’s something about Shriners that makes it easier to understand why these kinds of incidents continue to occur. Shriners don’t own a circus and instead lease their circus acts. Many animal exhibitors performing for Shrine circuses have been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations such as failure to provide veterinary care, inadequate shelter, failure to provide minimum space and unsafe handling. And animals used by some of these same circuses have killed and injured people.
In the United States, since 2014, at least 50 laws have passed protecting wild animals in traveling shows, including bans on the use of bullhooks on elephants in California and Rhode Island and bans on the use of elephants in traveling shows in Illinois and New York. At least 147 other localities in 37 states have passed restrictions governing the use of wild animals in circuses.
These trends are having an effect on the Shrines. As Americans increasingly turn away from animal acts in circuses because of the cruelty involved, a number of Shrine chapters are experiencing declining interest in circuses and are moving away from using wild animals in circuses or replacing the circus with a different kind of fundraiser. And of course, there is no shortage of alternatives to the cruelty of circuses, including carnivals, galas, auctions, golf tournaments, raffles, haunted house and scavenger hunts.
We urge Shriners International to establish a policy against the use of wild animals in circuses and encourage supporters to pursue a ban on wild animal acts in their own communities. As this incident involving the camel, and the many others that have occurred at Shriners’ circuses over the past few years demonstrate, using wild animals for entertainment in circuses is quite simply a bad, outdated and dangerous idea for both humans and the animals.
P.S. As we lead efforts in states and cities across the country and around the world to end the era of captive wild animal acts, we’re ready to work with anyone interested in pursuing a circus ordinance in their community. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to request a circus toolkit.