As fans filed in to the TD Garden for the Ringling Brothers circus Friday night, about 40 people gathered in front of the venue to protest the show’s treatment of its performing elephants.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals jointly organized the non-violent protest, where members of both organizations held signs, handed out flyers to adults, and gave elephant-themed coloring books to children walking into the Garden.
“It’s a big problem [elephant mistreatment], and it goes on all the time,” said Laura Ray , co-organizer of the protest and representative of PETA. “Being in circus conditions is very physically and psychologically abusive to them. It’s devastating…and that’s why we’re doing this, to call on the public to boycott the circus.”
The circus’s trademark African elephants are part of many of its shows. They are trained to stand on two legs, as well as obey a number of other commands.
Ringling came under fire for mistreatment of its animals in recent years—namely, a $270,000 fine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011 made by Feld Entertainment, its parent company—but several of those involved in the protest said they did not believe Ringling ever rectified its internal issues regarding animal welfare.
Stephen Payne, spokesman for Ringling Brothers, said the fines were a problem for the circus, but the alleged violations have long since been corrected, and they are very focused on the well-being of their animals.
“We are firm proponents of animal welfare, particularly with our elephants, but also with our tigers, our horses and dogs,” he said. “It’s something people see in every performance … We actually encourage people to come out and see for themselves what we call the all access pre-show where we show the animals, explain what we do, and they can even ask questions.”
The circus will be in Boston through Sunday. The protest organizers said they did not assume they could stop people from attending the circus altogether for the entire weekend, but any opportunity to draw attention to their cause was good.
“We don’t expect people to tear up their ticket and pull out, especially if they’re with their children,” said Jessica Thibodeau, co-organizer and representative of IDA. “We understand. The kids are excited. It’s more about the next time. Maybe they skip on the next one, or they tell their friends who then decide not to support it. That’s a victory for us.”
Several residents going to the show said they appreciated the protest’s intentions, but did not know if it would change many peoples’ minds.
“It’s nice to see, but the protest doesn’t change much for me,” said Dasia Fleming , 22, resident of Dorchester. “Everybody has their different opinions on the circus … When I watch it, it’s a show, just like with dogs. Training dogs to do tricks isn’t wrong, and it’s the same thing here. Sure, there are bigger problems with poachers and bad treatment in the wild, but with the circus, no. It’s not as much of a problem.”
Ailey Rivkin , 17, resident of Boston, said she was persuaded by the protest.
“The way they’re doing this [protest], it’s very peaceful,” she said. “They’re not screaming or doing overrated chants. They’re not harming anyone, and they’re actually presenting facts without being in your face. Everything they’re doing, it’s correct, so I’m definitely on board with them.”
Joe Maher, 49, resident of Braintree, said he did not think the protest would affect the circus performances, but he was glad the protesters were out supporting what they believe in.
“I respect what they [protesters] are doing, but I don’t think a company as big as the Ringling Brothers would mistreat their animals the way they’re accused of,” he said. “I’m glad they’re out here though. There need to be people who make sure they [government officials] punish people who are mistreating animals, and let them know they’re going to be watched.”