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.”