Elephant handler Joey Frisco holds the microphone as “Cindy,” a 45- year-old Indian elephant plays the harmonica. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
Animal rights protesters stand outside the entrance to the Kelly Miller circus on opening night in Bristol on Wednesday. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
Elephants draw fans, protesters as circus comes to Bristol
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
BRISTOL — The circus was in town, and so were the protesters who complain about using elephants to entertain the crowd.
The Oklahoma-based Kelly Miller Circus, founded in 1938, had performances in Bristol’s Kelley Park on Wednesday and Thursday.
Kristina Snyder of Chester, a member of the New Hampshire Animal Rights League, was among a half-dozen protesters at the park. She said elephants evolved to roam over hundreds of miles and have a complicated social structure. It’s not right to truck them from town to town and make them perform, she said.
“We are especially distressed at their continued use of elephants,” she said. “The Ringling Circus retired their elephants and now they are closed for good. These even smaller, more abusive venues, like Kelly Miller Circus need to do the same,” said Snyder. “We’re just basically saying, ‘Look, you know how intelligent those animals are? You know what their social structures are? The bonds they have with their children. Their gestation period is two years, and those babies are often taken right after they are born and then they are, like, broken in because they need to be tamed. I’ve watched how they tame these elephants and it is pretty horrific.”
Representatives of the Kelly Miller Circus say the animals get the highest level of care and said protesters who show up at many of their shows are sorely misinformed.
Ringmaster Rebecca Ostroff said the stop in Bristol is part of a 420-show, 33-week tour that takes the circus across the country. In addition to two elephants, the 53-person circus has two camels, a zebra, a mule and ponies. It also has acrobats (including a woman who shoots a bow and arrow with her feet during an aerial move), a clown, a woman who performs an act with multiple hula hoops and a cowboy performing with a lasso.
But it’s the two Asian elephants – Jenny and Cindy – who get most of the interest. Before the show, they stood in an area enclosed by electrified wire. Children threw baby carrots to them. The huge animals have the dexterity to pick up the small vegetables with their trunk and toss them into their mouths.
As the final act in the show, the elephants entered, a showgirl in a red costume was atop each of the animals, which stood on stools, reared back and kneeled low. Cindy played the harmonica. When they left the stage, one was holding the other’s tail with its trunk.
After the show, one of the elephants made a high-pitched sound as the trainer took off the headgear that was placed on its head for the show.
“We have a veterinarian,” Ostroff said. “The USDA comes whenever they want. You do what you are supposed to do, whether you are a farmer who uses animals, a horse rider, if you have a dog show, if you find a cat at a pound.
“Our animals happen to be very large. We are with them all the time. We have proper animal husbandry and they perform. We do just the thing that you are allowed to do.”
Elephant trainer Joey Frisco said the elephants are like family to him.
“I grew up around Jenny since I was a month old,” he said. “My grandfather and my father were taking care of her. And then Cindy, since I was 12, so it’s not really just a job, it’s a family member. Now myself, my wife, my five kids get to spend every day with them.”
Jenny is 51 and Cindy is 45. They were probably first imported into the United States from a life in Thai logging camps. Elephants can no longer be brought into the states for use in circuses or zoos.
Frisco said he or his wife are with the elephants all the time while the show is on the road. They try to give the elephants things to do as they can.
“We’re kind of in a school area here so we can’t really walk them around and do different things with them, but behind the scenes we can take them out, take them in the water, take them in the woods and do things,” he said.
He said 80 to 85 percent of the job of working with elephants is achieved through voice commands. Elephant handlers also use bullhooks, or a hook attached to a handle that can be used to encourage or goad the animal into a specific action. He called the tool a “guide,” and said it was similar to a leash on a dog or reins on a horse.
Frisco said there is unreasonable criticism of the bullhook.
“You put a collar around a dog’s neck and you attach a line behind it, and to get it to listen, you choke it,” he said. “That’s OK, but if I have a stick in my hand and say ‘Steady,” or touch them and say, ‘Stop. No,’ that’s a problem for an 8,000 pound animal.
“But you cannot move elephants without them in free contact because if something scares them, you have to pull them to you.”
Frisco said he has a good relationship with the animals.
“These girls are seasoned, they have been around for a while and they have seen a lot of different things,” he said. “They enjoy being around. They enjoy meeting different people.”
He said the interactions they have with people on the road as well as the things they see and do provide a level of mental stimulation that helps keep them healthy.
Frisco used to work with Ringling Brothers, the biggest name in the circus industry before it went out of business recently. The high costs of running a circus together with a decline in ticket sales contributed to that company’s problems, which accelerated after it decided to end its use of elephants amid public complaints.
The tent the Kelly Miller Circus set up in Bristol was big enough to hold 1,100 people, but fewer than 300 attended the show Wednesday. The circus will perform in North Andover, Massachusetts, on Friday.
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