Soon after Bryan Monell started working as an elephant handler for the Carson & Barnes Circus in 1999, the beatings began.
In his time with the nation’s second-largest elephant herd, he saw animals slammed in the head with baseball bats and stabbed in the ears and legs with bull hooks.
And that was just the start, he claims.
“What I saw at the circus was truly horrific,” he said.
After more than a year of working for the Oklahoma-based circus, Monell, who had actually been working as an undercover investigator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, came away with footage of trainers beating elephants and shocking them with cattle prods.
Ever since, PETA has been dogging Carson & Barnes, among other circuses accused of animal abuse. Aside from demonstrations, the activist group sends e-mails about the alleged abuse to local media outlets, including the Sun-Star, as well as local officials.
Circus comes to town
On Monday, the circus will be in Merced after spending the weekend in Modesto.
And PETA has sent ahead a request, urging Merced officials to pass an ordinance against the use of bull hooks and cattle prods.
County spokeswoman Katie Albertson said there are existing laws that prevent the abuse of animals and the county expects the circus to live up to those laws.
In the past six years, there have been no violations found by the county.
These abuses are industrywide, said RaeLeann Smith, a circus specialist for PETA.
Confined wild animals should not be a part of circuses at all, she added, but for now PETA just wants to prevent their abuse.
A representative of Carson & Barnes said the allegations against them are baseless.
Malcolm Knopf, director of marketing for the circus, said it would not only be cruel to beat the animals but it wouldn't make much business sense. "It's completely false," he said. "Animals are No. 1 with us."
He said the video taken by Monell of their trainer Tim Frisco screaming at and beating elephants was fabricated.
"It was an undercover person that got into our animal facility and put together a video," he said. "They contrived a video with sound clips and other subtitles that really have nothing to do with the circus -- with our circus at least."
The circus also accuses PETA of its own wrong-doing, including euthanizing animals. The circus' Web site has a link to another site titled, "PETA kills animals."
PETA vs. USDA
PETA's wrath reaches beyond accusations against circuses, though. PETA has not left out the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees Animal Welfare Act inspections at circuses.
PETA claims that the agency's inspectors fail to thoroughly do their jobs and that the agency rarely disciplines offenders.
Every time the USDA inspected Carson & Barnes' winter quarters in Oklahoma, Monell recalled, the inspector would be left at the front gate until they could clean up the animals. "The USDA inspections were a complete joke," he said.
Smith added that the USDA rarely punishes violators to the extent of the law -- even when they are caught. "The message is that there are no real actions being taken if you are not compliant," she said.
A review of the inspection reports by the USDA of Carson & Barnes, shows that in the past three years there have been only a few minor infractions, including cracked elephant toenails as well as a punctured foot pad.
In the last decade, the circus has paid two out-of-court settlements for alleged violations: $400 in 2001 and $500 in 2003, according to Jessica Milteer, a spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA. Both alleged violations involved animal handling.
The inspection service -- whose 102 inspectors oversee more than 9,000 facilities nationwide -- made more than 16,000 inspections last year, said Milteer. "We have performed great oversight," she added in reply to PETA's claims to the contrary.
The service's track record is a mixed bag though, according to a 2005 audit by the USDA's Office of Inspector General.
The audit said the inspectors were "highly committed to enforcing the Animal Welfare Act through their inspections." But it also identified several areas where the APHIS's Animal Care Arm should "improve its inspections and enforcement practices to ensure that animals receive humane care and treatment."
A major conclusion of the audit was the disparity between the service's two divisions.
The audit found that in 2003-04, the Eastern Regional management declined to refer 126 of 475 violations to investigators.
In the Western Region, which includes Oklahoma, management declined only 18 of 439 violations.
Punishments for violators were also found wanting.
Currently, they offer a 75 percent discount on fines as an incentive for violators to settle out of court to avoid legal fees, noted the audit.
"We found that APHIS offered other concessions to violators, lowering the actual amount paid to a fraction of the original assessment," added the audit. The audit also said that an "official told us that as a result, violators consider the monetary stipulation as a normal cost of conducting business rather than a deterrent from violating law."
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or email@example.com.