The white Bengal tiger paces back and forth, back and forth in a squat cage on the edge of the show ring.
The cage is little longer than the tiger's body. The clock ticks down to the start of three scheduled performances at this fair in Pennsylvania. Potted palms and wooden masks decorate the ring and African-inspired music plays through speakers as the tiger traces and retraces her steps. Back and forth. Back and forth. "See him dancing around?" a mother in the stands asks her son. “He’s anxious—he wants to come out and give us a show!”
The Bengal has traveled here from Florida along with four other tigers, all of them likely hybrids—mixes of subspecies vanishing from the wild. Each tiger is locked in a little cage 24-7, except when released into the ring or when the small transfer cages are joined together to create a group run. This doesn’t always happen: Their owner was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 for keeping them confined for two days nonstop.
Then the trainer introduces a third big cat, who emerges from her cage slowly, ears flattened back against her head. She cringes as she gets on her stand. “On the brink of extinction, let’s welcome our Sumatran tiger!” When the trainer reaches out his hand, the big cat flinches and snarls. “Did you hear that? I call this one here Grouchy Pants.” The tiger lowers her head and stares at the ground.
The trainer at the Pennsylvania fair was injured while exhibiting his tigers at a Midwest festival in the early 2000s. One of the big cats knocked him down and clawed him. At first spectators thought it was part of the act, according to a report in a local newspaper, but his wound required 30 to 40 stitches. Such incidents are fairly common. A 2017 HSUS report on wild animals in circuses and other traveling shows found that 10 people have been killed and more than 200—including scores of children—have been injured since 1990 in the U.S. Frightened, confused or angry big cats, bears, elephants and primates have broken loose and run amok or attacked with little or no warning.
Governments have responded. Six states and nearly 150 other localities across 37 states have passed restrictions on the use of wild animals in circuses and traveling shows. Since 2014, 50 laws to protect wild animals in traveling shows have passed, many with the help of the HSUS. In 2016, California and Rhode Island banned the use of bullhooks, torturous devices used to punish and control elephants. In 2017, Illinois and New York banned the use of elephants in traveling shows.
The end of 2018 saw two big wins: New Jersey and Hawaii became the first two states to effectively ban traveling animal acts.
In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige approved a regulation from the state’s Board of Agriculture banning the import of dangerous wild animals for use in traveling shows. The measure came in response to an HSUS legal petition filed in 2014.
In 2017, an HSUS undercover investigation documented the abuse behind traveling animal acts. The investigator recorded video of Ryan Easley, who uses the stage name Ryan Holder, hitting and whipping animals to force them to do tricks in his ShowMe Tigers act. The investigator witnessed Easley whip at one tiger 31 times in less than two minutes, making contact with her paws, chest and face and causing her to flinch, snarl and roar. A video clip reveals the impact of such treatment: Locked in cages, with the trainer yelling at them, the tigers cannot fight back or retreat. Instead, they moan, uttering long cries of pain and despair.
Jay Pratte, an animal behavior expert, trainer and wildlife consultant with 27 years of experience, said Easley’s “archaic” training methods, based on fear, force and punishment, are doing terrible damage. “In my professional opinion, the tigers are suffering from psychological neglect and trauma on a daily basis.”
Beyond the physical and emotional pain they cause, such situations are unnatural for the wild animals involved, says Pratte. Touring tigers, for example, have generally been raised in captivity among humans, rather than as tigers, and are confused about how to behave. “They tend to get mixed signals that can create a lot of conflict in them.”
The public does not realize how much danger they put themselves in by attending such shows, Pratte says. Multiple times, tigers have escaped from transport cages and run through parking lots at venues. In one case, a tiger got loose inside an arena while being moved from a performance cage to a transfer cage. The tiger bolted into a nearby restroom where he encountered but fortunately did not attack a woman.
The Animal Welfare Act is supposed to protect wildlife in traveling shows (and the public), but the law’s weak regulations are poorly enforced, say Leahy and Wathne. Though inspections take place, few citations for violations of the law are issued. Since September 2017, the number of citations for violations has dwindled to near zero, Leahy says. The HSUS provided evidence to the USDA about apparent AWA violations the investigator observed and documented with Easley in 2017, but as of early this year had heard nothing back.
Increasingly, however, the animal entertainment industry is under a new kind of scrutiny. Spectators are watching wildlife shows through fresh eyes. Even as the remaining traveling acts try to avoid attention and protesters, moving from smaller city to smaller city with minimal publicity, audience members are recording shows on their cell phones. Those upset by what they see are posting scenes to social media.
Public opinion helped shut down Ringling Bros., and it can do the same with the remaining traveling wildlife acts, says Pratte. “It’s going to rely on people becoming more aware of what animals are experiencing. We have to convince them that each animal’s well-being is more important than a selfie.”
Every fall, Massachusetts advocate Sheryl Becker doggedly protests traveling wild animal acts at the Eastern States Exposition, or Big E, a huge fair in Springfield. For years, Becker says it felt like hardly anyone paid attention to her or the few other advocates asking Big E visitors not to go to a petting zoo with an elephant or take a ride on a camel or watch a circus that featured wild animals doing tricks. Nine Massachusetts towns have banned traveling animal acts, but they are still legal in the city of Springfield.
In 2018, though, shortly after the Big E opened, two members of the public independently posted on Facebook about what they saw as cruel treatment of animals at the fair by Commerford & Sons petting zoo, a Connecticut operation with Animal Welfare Act violations.
One visitor shared a video of a Commerford handler attempting to drag a camel to his feet: The handler pulls and pulls on the camel’s harness, but the animal remains on his knees. After the handler walks away, the camel still struggles on his knees, unable to get up.
Another visitor posted a photo of a 51-year-old elephant named Minnie, who Commerford uses to give rides for $10 apiece. Born in the wild in Thailand, Minnie was sold to the zoo when she was 4 and has been giving rides for decades. Early on, she attacked a worker and broke his arm. In 1989, while two children were on her back, she used her trunk to pick up a handler who had hit her with a stick and threw him against a trailer, breaking his shoulder and jaw. In 1998, she panicked during the New York State Fair, dumping a 3-year-old rider on the ground and stepping on a trainer. In 2006, she pinned two handlers to a loading dock as they were putting two children on her back. One handler suffered a chest injury and the other a broken arm.
At the Big E last fall, Minnie slowly circled part of a parking lot with as many as four people on her back, giving rides under the supervision of a handler with a bullhook. “Her feet hurt really bad,” the visitor wrote on Facebook. “She kept picking them up and shaking them and she was limping … I am ashamed of myself for even going to that fair.”
The posts about Minnie and the camel went viral. Suddenly, local television channels, news websites and a public radio station were covering animal welfare at the Big E. Dozens of protesters showed up with signs at the gate nearest the animal acts. More than 130,000 people signed a Change.org petition. Becker was elated.
“There is an awakening happening,” says Becker. “Everything is exposed. Nothing is hidden now.”
For a long time, the Big E insisted traveling wildlife acts were an important tradition that must continue. People brought up to accept such acts as fun and entertaining carried on visiting, as though nothing was amiss. But a younger generation is finally seeing through the “show.” They come away sad and shaken by the cruelty—and resolved to deliver animals from the show ring once and for all.