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It is Halloween weekend, and the circus is coming to Eureka. One school club prepares to combat it.
Olivia Robertson and Jenni Valle are co-coordinators of HSU’s A.W.A.R.E. (Always Working for Animal Rights and Equality) club. “I’m not going to deal with anyone being arrested this weekend,” Robertson says at the Thursday meeting. She passes around an ACLU flyer titled “Rights of Demonstrators.” This is a planning meeting for the protest of Piccadilly Circus the group will hold over the weekend.
In a press release, the circus hypes the “Elephant Extravaganza,” in which “an elephant stands on one foot.” “I think there are much higher forms of entertainment,” Robertson says, “I’d rather watch Animal Planet.”
She stresses that A.W.A.R.E. is an animal rights group, not an animal welfare group. Mary Sue Savage, former coordinator of the club, explains that animal welfare advocacy is about improving the situations in which animals are kept, whereas animal rights advocacy is about preventing animals from being put in those situations in the first place. “Dismantling structures that enslave animals,” Savage says.
Using animals as entertainment is one of those structures, according to Savage. “Animals do not belong in circuses or to be used for entertainment purposes.”
On Sunday, Savage and Robertson stand outside the entrance to Redwood Fairgrounds, about an hour before the first show starts. Savage holds a sign that says “Circuses Are No Fun For Animals.“ Robertson’s has a picture of a chained up elephant and reads, “Minutes of Entertainment… A Lifetime of Misery.” They pass out flyers to people going into the circus listing “four reasons why you should make this your last animal circus.”
“How do you know it’s not fun, did you talk to them?” A man asks Savage as he walks past. An elderly woman refuses a flyer, saying, ”I don’t want to read that. It might ruin my fun.” Another woman takes a flyer as she walks in, not seeming to notice the signs. “Wait, animal cruelty, no,” she says once she glances at the paper. She gives it back.
“Yeah, that’s true,” a man points at the signs as he exits the fairgrounds before show time, “they’re a rip-off, too.” Someone driving by honks and gives the protestors two thumbs up.
At around 1:20 p.m., the last of the latecomers enter the fairgrounds and things get quiet. The protestors set their signs down and lean against the wall at the entrance gate.
On Saturday, Robertson was able to get inside the fairgrounds as the circus was getting set up. “The elephants are in these trailers. They’re packed in there.” She says the animals had little ventilation.
The Florida-based Piccadilly Circus abruptly removed one elephant, “Nosey,” from its tour in April of this year. Nosey, a female African elephant, had been touring with the circus since 2010, according to the Animals Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF), a Florida-based non-profit organization. Nosey’s owner is Hugo Liebel of the Liebling Circus, also known as the Florida State Family Circus.
The USDA has repeatedly cited Liebel in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, with regards to Nosey’s health. In an inspection that took place on Feb. 23, 2011, the veterinarian noted that Nosey continued to suffer from a chronic skin condition, despite treatments being prescribed in previous inspections. Also, her feet were in poor condition.
Another elephant has now replaced Nosey in the Piccadilly Circus, according to ARFF. “Animals used for circuses are beaten, whipped, et cetera, and it’s not OK,” says Savage.
After the show is over, people stream out of the fairgrounds gates as more people stream in for the 3:30 show.
“Thanks for making it a crappy show,” one woman shouts at Robertson and Savage as she leads her children out of the gate. Some people give a sarcastic “thank you” as they leave, while others give a sincere “thank you.”
A little girl walks out, clutching one of the protestors’ flyers in her hand. “They treat the elephants like poo!”
“I thought the elephants looked like they were having a ton of fun,” someone says on their way out. “Well, you’re terribly misinformed,” Robertson shoots back.
At the Thursday meeting she emphasized that they’re going to treat everyone with respect. “They’re not bad people; they’re just unenlightened.”
A.W.A.R.E. meets every other Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in Karshner Lounge, and can be reached on Facebook at facebook.com/hsuaware.