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Cole Bros. Circus Comes to Palm Coast Trailing History of Violations and Animal Abuse Charges

| October 20, 2011

Tina and Jewel, now relatively healthy and at the Los Angeles Zoo, are at the center of guilty pleas and still-pending charges hanging over the DeLand-based Cole Brothers Circus, which raises its Big Top in Palm Coast's Town Center next week. (San Diego Zoo)

Judging from its company history, the DeLand-based Cole Brothers Circus, which comes to Palm Coast for four shows at Town Center next Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 25 and 26), has been around since 1884. “The Cole Bros. trademark has enjoyed longevity because it represents value and integrity to the American public,” that company history reads. “Today, the Cole name continues to signify quality family entertainment that has captivated million of Americans.”

But the circus is coming to town trailing a recent history of lawbreaking, to which the circus and its president have pleaded guilty, and charges of animal abuse, which are pending before the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Eight months ago, John Pugh, the owner and president of Cole Brothers, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act for unlawfully buying and selling two Asian elephants, according to the Department of Justice. Wilbur Danvenport, a former circus employee, and Cole Brothers itself, were also named in the plea agreement. The circus was fined $150,000 and placed on four years’ probation. The two men were sentenced to three years’ probation and 100 hours of community service each of those three years. Pugh was also fined $4,000 and required to pay $1,200 to any organization involved in the rehabilitation of Asian elephants.

The Department of Justice Plea

“Mr. Pugh has taken full responsibility for his actions and has cooperated fully with the investigation, and the matter is now closed,” Cole Brothers Circus said in a written statement when contacted about the matter Thursday. “The two elephants now reside at the Los Angeles Zoo.   Animals currently appearing as part of the Cole Bros. Circus are engaged by contract, and Cole Bros. Circus takes extra care to assure that all animal acts have the proper permits, and that the animals are treated in a humane and respectful manner.”

Tina and Jewel, both females now in their 40s, are the two Asian elephants at the heart of the issue. Asian elephants are endangered. It’s unlawful to buy or sell them without a permit, which is difficult to obtain unless the sale or transfer of the animal is shown to have scientific value, or would help propagate the species. Pugh and the circus sold the two elephants to Davenport for $150,000 in 2005, when Davenport was still with the circus. Davenport continued performing with the circus in 2006 to pay off the balance he owed for the elephants before shipping the animals back to his home in Texas, where he planned to use them in his own business, for private parties, demonstrations and rides, according to the Department of Justice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confiscated Jewel in 2009, while Tina by then had been turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had investigated the case. The animals, according to the Department of Justice, were initially transferred to the San Diego Zoo, where Jewel gained 1,100 pounds in one year while receiving treatment for her abscessed feet. The weigh gain underscored the extent to which the elephant had been underweight. They moved to the Los Angeles zoo last October.

That wasn’t the end of the circus’ troubles.

The USDA’s Complaint

Three months ago, the USDA filed administrative charges against Pugh and the circus, among others, detailing a long list of problems relating to the circus’ care for elephants and tigers and other exotic animals. “The gravity of the violations herein is great, and include repeated noncompliance with the regulations for veterinary care, handling and licensing,” the USDA complaint alleges.

“We have total confidence that we will be cleared of the allegations in that complaint,” Renée Storey, Cole Brothers’ vice president of administration, said Thursday afternoon. Storey noted that several of the allegations don’t involve the circus, but rather Gigi Davenport, who did business as Gigi Exotics out of Texas and operated as an animal exhibitor whose Animal Welffare Act license was terminated in 2008. Davenport is connected to Wilbur Davenport, and several of the charges add detail to the issues involving the two Asian elephants.

In 2006 and 2007, the complaint charges, Pugh, the circus and Davenport failed to maintain adequate veterinary care for the animals in their custody. Food was improperly protected from deterioration and contamination. Yet another elephant (Boo) was allegedly mishandled during a public exhibit. Animal-acquisition records were inaccurate. Enclosures for Tina and Jewel were allegedly inadequate, providing no shade from sunlight or inclement weather, and Boo’s handling during circus performances involved repeated abuse such as hitting with a hook or a goad during rides.

After the two Asian elephants were removed from the circus, violations continued, the USDA alleges, with Cole Brothers operating as both exhibitor and circus without a valid license. In July last year, the complaint charges, the circus employed a tiger handler “who lacked adequate training, knowledge and experience in handling tigers.” The circus and Pugh last July “operated as dealers without having obtained a valid license, and specifically, delivered for transportation, or transported, sold, or negotiated the sale of tigers for use in exhibition, in willful violations” of federal regulations.

Storey, reiterating that the circus would be cleared, said the circus’ written answer to the charges was not immediately available, but would be provided to FlaglerLive soon. “The public knows from first-hand observations that our animals are well-cared for,” Storey said.

Animal Rights and Tactics

Animal rights organizations have been aggressively pursuing circuses and exhibitors, and sometimes zoos, over the manners in which animals are kept and handled. The campaign to save Tina and Jewel was led by the group In Defense of Animals of San Rafael, Calif. The USDA complaint was initiated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which charged in a letter to the USDA in 2006 that a circus whistle-blower said a young and inexperienced trainer was “using food deprivation to gain control” over Jewel. “We are also concerned that Tina is being overworked as she is being used for rides before, during, and after the show,” the letter claimed.

“Both Davenport and Cole Bros. have deplorable track records when it comes to elephants. We hope you will view this as a dire situation and confiscate Jewel as soon as possible. This elephant appears to be in urgent need of adequate nutrition and veterinary care.” The confiscation took place, but not because of the alleged mistreatment or other issues claimed in the USDA complaint. Those charges are pending.

PETA is known for awareness-raising tactics that can be almost as aggressive as any corporation’s product-advertising campaign. While the tactics are similar, criticism of PETA can be more acute because the debate over animal rights elicits ideological responses in ways that, say, aftershave or car tires don’t. Car tires or aftershave are routinely advertised in the run-up to a sporting event, for example. But when PETA advertises a circus’ questionable history ahead of its appearance in certain towns, its own involvement may elicit pause, distracting from the issues it’s raising—however newsworthy the issue.

Carney Anne Chester, a lawyer with PETA, said the public in communities where Cole Brothers is performing has a right to know the circus’ recent history and decide for itself whether it should patronize the organization. PETA makes no bones about its intention: the organization encourages the public to boycott the circus, Chester said, by voting with its feet against the handling of animals documented in the Department of Justice case and the pending USDA case.

Storey, in response, says “PETA is gaining much more publicity with the circus” through its campaign, but that “animal activist organizations of this nature have lost a lot of credibility with the public.” She said attendance at Cole Brothers acts has risen in the recession, even, and surprisingly, for its matinees.

“Today,” the Cole Brothers’ company history concludes, “families from Florida to Maine, from Long Island Sound to Cajun country eagerly anticipate the arrival of The New Cole Bros. Circus for ‘children of all ages’ know that its the circus that remains faithful to the tented tradition of presenting wholesome entertainment in a friendly atmosphere that makes them feel welcome. A fitting heir to the legacy of W. W. Cole, owner John Pugh is committed to the tradition of presenting ‘in a reputable manner by reputable people’ the real, American, three-ring circus under the Big Top.”

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21 Responses for “Cole Bros. Circus Comes to Palm Coast Trailing History of Violations and Animal Abuse Charges”

  1. palmcpaster says:

    Just what I was thinking, when I saw the advertisement about it this morning. I am still recovering from the nightmare of those 400 pigs euthanized at the Yarzurlo 20 acre farm in Western Flagler County when yesterday I was hit with the news of the unmerciful killing of those 48 or 50 exotic animals in Ohio and just to see this circus ad image really didn’t help….For these very reasons I never been a fan of animal circus. What about Cirque de Soleil instead? Hope this one gets posted…

  2. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    Perhaps the City is guaranteeing that no harm will be done to the animals, like they are guaranteeing that, the marathon run will be held as promised, and financially responsible for all expenses and prizes…

  3. Educated Consumer says:

    Have to dispute this comment. “The public knows from first-hand observations that our animals are well-cared for,” Storey said.
    I saw Viola, Nina and Kelly just a few weeks ago. They don’t look well, all of them were swaying, Kelly continued swaying as Viola and Nina were lead off to give rides. Both of these elephants had a cracked nail and feet need care, their eyes were constantly downcast, half closed and looked depressed. Viola’s mouth was gaped open. If you know anything about elephant, you know these are all indication that these elephants are not well.
    Just a few months ago Cole’s elephant handler was videotaped hooking Viola in the ear and causing her to scream in pain and in the next town they were videotaped beating the elephants with a bullhook like you would swing a baseball bat.
    The circus’s actions speak louder than Ms. Storey’s words. Time to end the animal acts.

  4. Yogi says:

    “The circus’s actions speak louder than Ms. Storey’s words. Time to end the animal acts. ” Got videos???? Where is the evidence. I don’t believe you. Don’t forget the trees or the vegetables that get whacked to feed the animals……..No one likes to see animals suffer but there seems to be more whacko0s than people with common sense these days. Show me the evidence of your claims. I can’t believe that all these unionizeed government employees would allow such abuse.

  5. 11shepherd says:

    Yogi, why don’t you read the Nov/Dec article on Ringling abuse here Human and animal abuse goes on everyday. Just because there are laws doesn’t mean there’s enforcement. BTW, the article is written by a Pulitzer winning journalist. Please educate yourself.

  6. Educated Consumer says:

    Yogi you can start here to educate yourself.
    Cole Bros Circus and owner John Pugh plead guilty for violating the Endangered Species Act and was ordered to pay over $150,000 in fines, 3 years probation and 100 hours of community service.
    Viola who is touring with Cole Bros was recently videotaped by a family waiting to take an elephant ride, her handler John Walker hooks her in her ear canal with a sharp bullhook as she gives rides to children, and you can hear her trumpet out in pain.
    July 2011 the USDA filed charges against Cole Bros Circus for 12 violations against the Animal Welfare Act, several of these charges are over abusing their elephants. (

  7. palmcoaster says:

    This proof presented breaks my heart. Do those parents even imagine the danger these children are exposed to while riding this wild creatures? The trainers by fear, would not be able to control these poor elephants if an unexpected revolt against this routine will take place.
    I remember in the past was of Commissioner Holland idea to bring the Animal Circus to town. Is this time as well and if so why? The Cole family business should diversify and present only humans performing and leave these animals in their habitats for a change or in the zoos and/or responsible monitored sanctuaries

  8. Danielle says:

    I will never support this kind of entertainment. I wrote letters to our local city of Margate and Lauderhill who allows this disgusting exhibit to be displayed here, and I don’t even get a response… The best way is to go into their pockets… aka Don’t BUY A TICKET.

  9. Richard Hamilton says:

    I heard the ad on the radio for this and I am SO DISSAPOINTED that the Ag Museum loaned their name to this Circus. I may never give another dollar to them again. I know there are probably some cases of abuse of animals on farms, (i dont mean the factory farms) but most of the time I think farmers take good care of their working livestock.

  10. Karl says:

    Peta’s stories are so one sided. They never tell you that the USDA cannot, and does not write goot reports when all is found to be well. The fine for Mr. Pugh is not for animal abuse! You know nothing animal experts need to do your research. He unknowningly sold those elephants to someone without a permit. Yes, he should have checked, but we all make mistakes. I watched a Peta demonstrator with a dog at a sit/stay for over an hour with the dog less than 3 feet from the autos flying by on the road into the circus lot. The temperature was over 90 and the dog had no water. And that is not animal abuse! Why would someone with an animal, elephant, worth more than $100,000 abus it? It is like the Peta people taking their BMW to a demolition derby!

  11. Jack Cowardin says:

    While were talking about animal abuse, how many are aware that right here in the good ole USA a child under the age of 4 dies from abuse every 5 hours! That’s over 2,200 children per year and going up as times get worse for the poor.

  12. Jim Neuenfeldt says:

    I am saddened also that the Ag. Museum would lend/sell their name to this event.
    Cole Bro’s Circus is not “Quality Entertainment” in my opinion. I took my kids to see them once many years ago and it was terrible to put it mildly.

    I understand the need for funding, however I disagree using Cole Bro’s as a fund raising source is “Smart” Business. I wonder about the permits for this seeing the latest fiasco with the Halloween Event that was supposed to happen this weekend? and it is now postponed last minute?

  13. Chris says:

    What is sad is that piles of the free tickets for children are all over elementary school campuses across the county. This has been going on for years. I’m glad that Flaglerlive has brought attention to this issue. Only through education will things change.

  14. Kendall says:

    I am very disappointed in the Ag Center for this.

  15. Larry says:

    Palm Coast does not need a circus! Palm Coast IS a circus!

  16. Educated Consumer says:

    Karl, You don’t have to be a member of any animal group to recognize animals when you see it.

    You must have missed the latest 12 charges brought against Cole Bros Circus by the USDA for violating the Animal Welfare Act. Several of the violations pertain to the elephants Jewel and Tina that Cole Bros abused for years before Mr. Pugh was caught illegally selling them. (

  17. SAW says:

    How do you spell boycott ?

  18. disagree says:

    I went and saw the circus and all of the animals looking like they are cared for! I didn’t see anyone abuse them or hook any elephants. My daughter rode a pony and pet it and it was clean and had fur that looked like it is def taken care of. The tigers looked healthy! I think it is sad that all of the boycotts and people trying to push their opinion on others scared many people away because they were worried for the safety of their children and NOT because of the animals but the boy cotters. My daughter loved the animals and enjoyed seeing the circus and I am glad that we went to see it and will go again when they are in daytona! If you don’t agree with the circus and don’t want to see it DON’T GO but don’t ruin it for others or for the people that work hard and this is their way of making a living!

  19. Ana Campos says:

    I’m thrilled to report that Cole Brothers will not be invited back to Margate. 60 residents came together last night and asked the city to ban bull hooks. That’s exactly what they plan to do. Your days of abusing animals will end. Apparently they pay their employees less than minimum wage. They are a nightmare. Ask your city to ban bull hooks..

  20. Sandra Reynolds says:

    I am sure if enough of us let city council know we do not want the circus next year they will not be invited back. if you want your child to see tigers and elephants take then to the Jacksonville Zoo where the animals are treated humanely.

  21. confidential says:

    The owner of Cole circus needs to diversify and try to make a living in a different type of show…without wild animals. Maybe just only with domesticated animals like dogs, cats and gymnast and magicians like Cirque du Soleil does.

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