AP NEWS

Danbury circus draws protests

April 5, 2019

DANBURY — The Garden Bros. Circus is in town — but not everyone is happy about it.

“Garden Bros. comes to Danbury one to two times a year, and they’re coming back with the same poor, tortured animals,” said Redding resident and animal welfare activist Jill Alibrandi.

An employee of the Florida-based circus said there will be two elephants, six ponies, one horse and four camels in the Friday through Sunday shows.

In response to the alleged treatment of animals in circuses, Alibrandi and Bridgeport resident Lisa Leah Haut have organized protests outside the Danbury Ice Arena — the venue for the circus shows — on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Haut said she started protesting animals circuses 10 or 11 years ago after “seeing the violations of the basic rights of animals to live in their habitat, live peacefully and not be exploited.”

“When I started to see what a vast problem this was, I said, ‘A person of conscience has to start taking action,’ so I did,” she said.

Haut said the use of animals in circuses is “cruel, abusive, and poses a huge public safety risk.”

“These animals are wild and extremely stressed because of the unnatural conditions they’re living in — and they can just lose it after a certain point,” she said.

Circus animals also endure beatings, confinement, whippings and other forms of abuse to make them submissive, Alibrandi and Haut said.

But Jim Davis, executive director of Garden Bros.’s parent company Stellar Entertainment Group, says his circus is different.

When it comes to training their animals to do tricks and follow commands, Davis said the animals are “trained and awarded with treats.”

“You’re not going to get them to do what you want by hitting and kicking them,” he said.

Davis said the circus’s animals are “constantly cared for and maintained.”

The animals in Garden Bros. Circus shows are owned by contracted “USDA-licensed handlers,” Davis said, and they were born into captivity and “hand-raised by their handlers since they were babies.”

The animals are bathed regularly and “seen every month by a licensed USDA veterinarian, who is trained to look out for any issues,” he said.

Davis also said the animals love performing.

“It’s what they do — they enjoy interacting with people and performing for them,” he said.

Garden Bros. is comprised of hard-working people who are “constantly scrutinized and followed under a microscope,” said Davis, adding that animal abuse is not tolerated.

At the end of the day, he said, “we’re just trying to keep an old American tradition alive.”

In 2017, after 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — one of the founders of that American circus tradition — closed, due in part to prolonged battles with animal rights groups.

Ringling Bros.’ iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of other factors, as well, company executives said, including declining attendance, high operating costs and changing public tastes.

Haut said the purpose of the Danbury protests is to “raise public awareness and stop people from supporting these exploitive, abusive, dangerous shows.”

“We’re not there to protest the venue [although] we do want to convince them not to book these shows, but we’re primarily there to educate the public,” she said. “We’re not hostile — we just want ticket-holders to understand what their dollars are going to support.”

The Danbury Ice Arena recently came under new ownership and is “obligated” to host this weekend’s circus as part of a pre-existing contract, a Danbury Ice Arena employee said.

The employee said there are plans to re-evaluate the arena hosting the circus in the future.

Bridgeport, Stamford bans

Haut and Alibrandi are trying to get Danbury to ban animal circuses altogether.

“The two of us have been working really, really consistently on the issue of the abuse of animals in traveling exhibitions and circuses,” said Haut, who led the effort to get animal circuses banned in Bridgeport, which went into effect a few months ago.

Since Stamford and Bridgeport have bans, the only major Connecticut cities left for circuses to go to are Danbury and Hartford, said Alibrandi.

“We’re waiting on Hartford because it has a larger scope, but we’ve decided to focus on Danbury this year,” she said.

“We will pull in animal rights groups and use the same bill used for the Bridgeport ban and cater it to Danbury,” said Alibrandi.

Going after a city ordinance in Danbury is in the beginning stages, said Alibrandi, and Danbury residents need to contact their council members for it to move forward.

“The truth of the matter is that when people understand what’s going on (with circus animals), they really don’t want to be part of it,” she said.

kendra.baker@hearst.com