The Maryland Renaissance Festival keeps it’s elephant rides, despite opposition

Crownsville breaks its medieval spell on Sunday, returning from “Game of Thrones”-esque fantasy to regular Maryland soil. This year’s Maryland Renaissance Festival featured a new jousting performance group and an old standby — the elephant and camel rides.

And don’t expect the animal rides to end next season, said owner Jules Smith, who has led the festival for 35 years.

“I think it’s a very well-received element here,” Smith said.

Elephant rides, in particular, have come under closer scrutiny in recent years and have prompted protests from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In May 2016, Ringling Bros. performed their last elephant show, and the Kansas City Renaissance Festival ended its elephant show in April.

PETA showed up at this season’s opening day to protest the elephant and camel rides offered by Florida-based Frank Murray. His company, Elephant Walk, owns the 43-year-old female Asian elephant Essex and 10-year-old dromedary camel Thomas. Murray has been giving animal rides at the Renaissance festival for more than 20 years.

“I don’t see any reason not to have him back,” Smith said.

This year and in the past, PETA said the group has contacted Smith asking to end the elephant rides. Spokeswoman Rachel Matthews said the animal rights organization has asked sponsors to drop out, organized its own protests typically on opening day and helped local activists with their efforts.

Murray said any protests or complaints are misguided.

“If you stood long enough and looked at the faces of the children who look up at these elephants, you’d see I create magic,” he said. “They get the smells, sounds and interaction between man and beast that people have lost touch with. It appeals to people’s sense of belonging. It’s transcendent.”

Murray, 67, said he’s been obsessed with elephants since he was a teenager, spending his summers chasing circuses to see as many elephants as he could. He and his animals are often traveling, but home is a 35-acre ranch outside of Gainesville, Florida. In 2016, he took Essex to a Florida rally for then presidential candidate Donald Trump, where the elephant was painted with the words, “TRUMP Make America Great Again.”

Murray was part of the fight against the failed Anne Arundel County bull hook ban in 2015 and fights legislation against animal acts around the country. In 1996, a warrant was issued for Murray’s arrest with the New Jersey Humane Law Enforcement. Murray was charged with four counts of cruelty to animals and paid about $3,000 in fines in 2011. He said information on the charges was sent to a false address, and that in the 15 years between the warrant and his arrest he was still being inspected by the state of New Jersey and got licenses on a regular basis.

Robin Catlett, an administrator with Anne Arundel County Animal Control, said the county receives multiple complaints each year against the festival, but all have been unfounded.

A common criticism of Murray, and elephant owners alike, is that elephants should not be the only one in a room. Annapolis resident Charity Armstrong, who voiced her concern in a letter to The Capital, worried Essex lives an unhealthy life in isolation. After seeing the Ringling Bros. circus stop their elephant show last year, she wants the Renaissance festival to follow suit.

“The nation saw that as something awful enough that they (Ringling Bros.) removed it,” she said. “Why can’t we as a small town do the same?”

Murray said such criticisms are untrue.

“People think it’s a herd animal so that it has to have other animals — that’s a ploy that forces people with single elephants to give them up. They make that point so that they can further their cause at stopping me from having an elephant or two,” he said.

Matthews said elephants evolved to live in complex societies with close-knit families.

“When they lose a loved one — or live in a socially sterile environment — they suffer stress, anxiety, stereotypic behavior, persistent fear, hyper-aggression, cessation of play behavior and other ill effects. For this reason, the generally accepted zoological standard is to keep family groups together,” she said. “Humans — especially those who control elephants through dominance and intimidation — are no substitute for elephant companionship.”

Matthews cited recent studies by researchers at the Public Library of Science. The studies, which analyze zoo elephant population welfare, suggest that elephants depend on their social groups, and stress caused by humans can worsen physiological problems in the animals.

She also said the repetitive motion of giving rides can cause arthritis, which could lead Essex to be euthanized if untreated. In 2015, a member of PETA filed a complaint against Murray with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying that a veterinarian who frequently works with PETA observed “left rear leg stiffness, but also pelvic and back discomfort, soreness, and distribution or dissemination of pain that could manifest in the rear leg with the riders and saddle apparatus rubbing.” The USDA inspection report shows the agency did not find a “noncompliance” with the Animal Welfare Act.

Essex’s repetitive motion of eating and moving while giving rides is natural behavior, according to Murray.

“The elephant is at play,” he said. “She’s carrying weight, but it’s equivalent to person with a handbag or a kid with a backpack going to school. It keeps them always moving. When you see an elephant on chains rocking back and forth, animal rights people will say it’s in distress. The elephant just wants to move. It’s innate.”

Along with arthritis, Matthews said Essex is at risk for tuberculosis, and she could be putting the public at risk as well.

Topsy, Murray’s other elephant who died in 2014, tested reactive for tuberculosis antibodies and was barred from visiting Maine with the Piccadilly Circus in 2012. Matthews said since Essex was possibly exposed to tuberculosis through Topsy, she could be carrying the disease without symptoms and could spread it to other animals and people at the festival. Murray said he has 25 years of negative tuberculosis tests for Topsy and declined to comment further.

PETA wants Murray to give Essex and Thomas up to sanctuaries they claim will take better care of the animals, but Murray said it will never happen. He said sanctuaries are a source of tuberculosis themselves.

“Sending an elephant there would be tragic,” he said. “It’s difficult for them to even treat the elephant because they’re not trained, so the elephants can do whatever they want. To me it’s institutional living, it’s a jail. I agree, in a perfect world we all should be free. Tell me where that place is and I’ll take the elephant.”


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