When it comes to the best interest of exotic animals involved in traveling circus performances, both circus workers and animal rights activists feel they know what’s right.
Trey and Simone Key of Culpepper & Merriweather Circus say they love their animals.
Trey said that if he believed everything people said about the circus, “I would hate me too.” Photo courtesy of Culpepper Merriweather Circus
They take offense to anyone who says what they do in their act is abuse. They also feel activists are spreading misinformation about the way they treat their animals.
“I’m all for if anyone is mistreating an animal, go after them,” said Trey, who handles the three jungle cats — Delilah, Solomon and Francis — during performances. They will make a stop Tuesday, April 16, in Camp Verde amidst growing tensions from local animal rights activists who say that the show is torture for the animals involved.
This conversation follows a global trend of whether to ban circus acts that involve exotic animals. Countries such as Austria, Israel and Scotland have already introduced or implemented bans on circuses that use wild animals. In December, Hawaii became the second state following New Jersey to ban wild animals in circuses.
Karen Melillo, leader of Ban Exotic Animals in Traveling Circus Acts (BEATCA), is organizing a protest the day of the Culpepper & Merriweather show. She said she is concerned over the “intrinsic nature of abuse regarding travel.”
“Thirty-two weeks of performing every day” with no exercise, said Melillo.
But Trey’s wife, Simone Key, said that she and her husband provide day pens for their animals as soon as they arrive to a new location.
“The accusation they spend high percentage of their time in a cage is not true,” she said.
Trey said the company follows United States Department of Agriculture and “stringent” California laws when it comes to the care of their animals.
Christina Scaringe, general counsel for Animal Defenders International, said California laws can’t be enforced outside the state and USDA laws are not well-enforced, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General.
Scaringe said she has worked on the circus issue in areas all around the world. Today, she’s working on bipartisan federal bills targeting the use of wild animals in circus acts.
One bill, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, “seeks to stop the cycle of overbreeding and keeping of big cats, such as tigers, for use in cub petting operations, backyard ‘zoos,’ and the pet trade – prolific practices in the U.S. and a primary source of big cat abuse,” according to an ADI statement.
‘Right to be free’
Scaringe has also worked with Melillo in helping draft an ordinance in Cottonwood to ban circuses that use these animals in their acts.
“It’s about the animals and their right to be free,” she said.
She also noted it is a matter of public safety.
“The data shows that these animals do not tolerate these situations,” she said. “You are creating a chronic stress situation.”
Scaringe referenced multiple attacks involving circus animals over the years.
“It’s interesting we act surprised when something goes wrong,” she said. “Things going wrong happen at an alarming frequency.”
Entertainment or abuse?
Trey said what he does with his animals is entertainment, not abuse.
“Animals in entertainment aren’t automatically abused,” he said. “If someone is abusing animals, I want them to be held accountable.”
Trey said that he doesn’t make his animals do anything they don’t want to do.
“I give them treats during show … they do it for reward,” he said. “I want the public to see that. Yes I carry a whip, yes I carry a stick … I’m cueing with that, they’re not being prodded.”
Trey said that if he believed everything people said about the circus, “I would hate me too.”
Trey admits that there were several paperwork violations over the years and that he “took responsibility” for them.
“We are willing to let the public see everything we do with the cats,” he said.
Simone said it is frustrating when people on the outside claim to know what’s best for their animals.
“They don’t know that Solomon’s favorite food is split chicken breast … they don’t know what Delilah’s favorite toy is,” she said.
But for local activist and Cornville resident Joanne Cacciatore, regardless of how someone looks at it, it’s a moral issue.
“The morality hinges on what we want to teach our children on being good stewards of the natural world,” she said.
Cacciatore is a scientist and researcher studying trauma. She said she also studies the connection between humans and animals.
“Animals have always been of service to the human experience,” she said. “When you use animals for service, that’s one thing. When you use them for entertainment, that’s utterly unnecessary.”
Adrienne Possenti met Melillo through various animal rights activist spheres. A New Jersey resident, she helped spearhead legislation in Cumberland County to ban wild animal related circus acts. She said she sees parallels with Melillo’s effort to change the attitude in the Verde Valley concerning circus animals.
“She and I are also colleagues. We work very hard to bring an end to the cruel exploitation of the circus animals,” she said.
She said it blows her mind with what she went through initially.
“I went up against my entire town to draft an ordinance ban and they did,” she said. “You have to reveal the writing on the wall. It’s a horrible thing. It’s so horrible. It’s beyond human comprehension but it is the reality.”
But she said she does understand why it is a hard pill to swallow for some people.
“Maybe they do love them in their own way,” she said, referring to circus animal handlers. “The smaller circus performers with the animals, they’re seeing that their livelihoods are being threatened by people who want to see the animal torture end,” she said.
Possenti said with the direction the country is going, she does believe animals will stop being tortured in the circus eventually.
“I really am hoping I get to see it in my lifetime,” she said.
For Trey and Simone, they encourage anyone to come to their show and “see it for themselves.”