For the second time in the past three years Carson & Barnes Circus will be setting up its Big Top in Highlands Ranch.
Established in 1937, Carson & Barnes, coming May 18-20, boasts the largest Big Top on Earth and provides a plethora of entertainment during each show.
Yet aside from the traveling town full of dedicated “carnies” and exotic animals that has brought smiles to children across America for decades it is the behind-the-scenes activities that have some locals up in arms.
Carson & Barnes, like most traveling circuses, has been cited by the USDA numerous times for the mistreatment of its animals, prompting protests at many stops along the way and even causing decisions by some municipalities to disallow the circus from coming to town.
According to an article posted on KETV’s website in Omaha, Neb., just last month the Bellevue (Neb.) city council rejected Carson & Barnes from coming to town this June due to concerns expressed by many of its residents. Bellevue is far from alone in this type of decision too.
The reason for such cancellations and pulled invitations has a lot to do with the number of violations circuses are tallying. For Carson & Barnes in particular, violations have ranged from failure to provide proper veterinary care, adequate shelter from the elements, proper food and water, and failure to handle animals in a manner that prevents trauma and harm and ensures public safety.
Many of the public safety citations have stemmed from not providing proper supervision during elephant rides, while last summer there was also an incident at the Kelly Miller Circus, a sister circus of Carson & Barnes, where three tigers escaped from their enclosure and injured a horse.
“It’s not a huge stretch to imagine that could happen to a kid,” said concerned Highlands Ranch resident Sarah Straus. “Relying on the caliber of the Carson & Barnes employees to ensure public safety, considering all their violations in recent years, is a scary proposition. We are absolutely dismayed by the HRCA’s decision to contract with (them).”
Those violations may not be the easiest to monitor either, considering the manpower available to the USDA.
“Last year, the USDA had only 105 inspectors to monitor 7,976 facilities that range from pet stores and circuses to slaughterhouses, laboratories and breeders. They can’t be everywhere, and yet, they still managed to cite Carson & Barnes repeatedly for safety violations,” said Julie Hanan, a former senior keeper at a big cat rescue that dealt extensively with retired circus animals and saw firsthand some of the “debilitating” effects performing had on them.
Hanan said she sees this as an opportunity for community leaders to step up.
“My hope would be that Highlands Ranch would continue to be a leader,” she said. “Statistically, the city excels in so many areas. That’s why we moved here. It’s time to add animal welfare and compassion to that list, too. With one dog for every four people here and the city touting itself as being the most dog-friendly community in Colorado, I just assumed city officials would show the same level of compassion for all animals.”
A representative from the Carson & Barnes media relations department declined comment on the matter, however the circus does have responses on its website to the widespread concern over the way it treats its animals.
“The animals are our ‘stars’ and are treated accordingly,” the website states, adding that it makes a lifetime commitment to all of its animal performers. “When an animal reaches retirement age while living with us, they stay year round at the Endangered Ark Foundation in Oklahoma, where a healthy and stimulating environment provides excellent care for the remainder of their lives.”
The site also states that circus elephants generally live to between 62 and 70 years, longer than the average life expectancy of zoo elephants.
“These people are committed to these animals. They take excellent care of them,” said Jamie Noebel, HRCA community relations manager. “We are excited to have them back. It provides a great opportunity for family fun right here in our backyard.”
And while it will no doubt be fun for some, for others the air will be filled with much more than the smell of cotton candy, but protest and concern as well.
“I hope we don’t see a tragic accident happen here in Highlands Ranch, but, more importantly, I hope the public becomes more educated about what the circus really brings to town,” Hanan said. “And, in my opinion, it’s not just entertainment.”