The circus is coming to town, but not everyone is celebrating. Sarasota-based Garden Bros. Circus, whose current North American tour has been met with protests and scathing news reports on several stops, must be hoping to encounter a warmer welcome in South Florida, where it will stage shows through next week.
Garden Bros. is one of the oldest circus acts in the nation. According to People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), it also holds the distinction of being the "worst circus in America." At issue: a lengthy record of public-safety and animal-welfare violations that range from neglect to outright abuse.
"They'll say anything to throw a bad light on us," Stellar Entertainment Groups executive director Jim Davis said when asked to comment on PETA's laundry list of of animal-mistreatment incidents. Regarding the violations, Davis quoted investment magnate Warren Buffett: "If a cop follows you for 500 miles, you're going to get a ticket."
In 2017, a former Garden Bros. employee sent a complaint to PETA, which forwarded it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In her cover letter to the USDA, PETA associate director Rachel Mathews wrote that the whistleblower "reported witnessing handlers whip camels' feet until they bled, seeing elephants dripping blood from behind their ears, hearing a handler tase elephants backstage, and observing a llama repeatedly fall down during a difficult trick before the animal was eventually discarded at a petting zoo." PETA stated that the former worker also "believes that it's only a matter of time before a human is injured by an elephant," owing to inattention and unsafe practices.
Three years earlier, a different whistleblower cited an incident in which Zachary Garden, the circus' general manager, used a three-foot rod to beat a zebra to the point of collapse. That complaint also made reference to a pregnant sheep that was forced to give birth in the back of a truck while suffering from a broken leg that had been untreated for weeks.
Garden Bros., which is owned by Stellar Entertainment Groups, has also attracted the attention of the Better Business Bureau, which notes, "this business has a pattern of complaints concerning a failure to issue refunds for cancelled performances."
PETA's Garden Bros. "factsheet" highlights run-ins with animal-welfare agencies dating back more than a decade. In June 2018, for example, an animal-services department in Missouri charged a handler with failing to properly care for two elephants. Four months later, Kentucky wildlife officials charged the same handler with four permit violations. And the USDA has cited Zachary Garden for numerous violations, including irresponsible animal handling.
Davis says that as of this year, Garden Bros. no longer does business with the animal provider whose practices gave rise to allegations of mistreatment. He asserts that the circus has had no issues with its new vendor, Carden International. (PETA has its own fact sheet about Carden, which states that the USDA "has cited members of the Carden family for failing to provide adequate veterinary care, failing to handle animals properly, failing to have safe enclosures for animals, failing to provide animals with sufficient space... At least two elephants exhibited by the Carden family have tested positive for tuberculosis, and others have been barred from performing because of the possibility that they were carrying TB and could infect humans.")
"All of this is backlash is coming from PETA, which has their own agenda," Davis tells New Times.
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Davis and his team are decidedly critical of PETA — Stellar Entertainment booking agent Kayla Burke describes PETA as a "known terrorist group" that "harms more animals than anyone else." They argue that the circus treats its performance animals like family.
Garden Bros. staged its first circus performances at the Miami-Dade County Fairgrounds on Coral Way on Friday. Shows are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, after which the circus moves on to Pembroke Pines, then Okeechobee and West Palm Beach. The performances will feature two elephants, four camels, a horse, and a pony.
Officials in other localities, including Newport, Virginia, and Fairmont, West Virginia, refused to allow the circus to use exotic animals in their shows. Inspectors in places such as Georgia and Canada have denied permits to the organization on the grounds of persistent safety issues.
Davis tells New Times the circus obtained all necessary permits for its weekend shows in Miami. According to the county's website, short-term events such as circus performances require permits from Miami-Dade's police and health departments. Neither department responded to a request from New Times for comment and further information about the approval process.