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Elephants remain hot topic during local circus

MIDDLEBURY — The Garden Brothers Circus came to town last week — minus two of its biggest attractions.
Vermont’s rules governing importation and display of exotic animals resulted in Garden Brothers leaving its two elephant performers elsewhere during the circus’ Vermont tour, which included a couple of April 12 shows at Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center.
Vermont added elephants to its list of restricted species more than a decade ago, in part due to their propensity to carry tuberculosis in a strain that can be contracted by humans, according to Jason Batchelder, chief warden for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.
A note reading “no elephants, no refunds” was affixed to the Garden Brothers promotional sign that greeted a steady stream of children and adults who filed into the sports center prior to the 4:30 p.m. show. Omission of the two prodigious pachyderms from the show didn’t seem to bother customers, who had also been promised horses, camels and ponies, along with the customary clowns, acrobats, “human slingshot” and “motorcycle madness.”
Indeed, the only elephant sighting came courtesy of Middlebury resident and animal rights advocate Don Glauber, who stood vigil outside the makeshift big top. In one hand, Glauber held a small stuffed elephant. In the other, he held a homemade sign that read, “Do you love elephants? If so, ask me what you can do.”
Glauber had read a Garden Brothers flyer promising the participation of elephants. Though there were none present at the Middlebury venue, he decided to stick around anyway to offer people insights on elephants and how they are affected by life in captivity.
“When elephants are doing rides or tricks … they are being put through something called the ‘phajaan,’ where the elephant is basically starved for up to 10 days and is placed in a container where it is stabbed and repeatedly yelled at and basically tortured until they give up their soul,” Glauber said. “They are basically tortured until they give up their soul and stop being elephants. They do whatever they are told in order to be fed and not feel pain again.”
Don and Karen Glauber for the past eight years have been annual visitors and helpers at the renowned Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai province, Thailand. Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary founded by Sangduen Chailert. It provides around 250 acres of roaming space for a variety of elephants that share a common bond — some sort of disability inflicted by man or in the wild. The Glaubers have been designated “elephant ambassadors” by the park.
“We have volunteered to offer free educational programs to any group that wants it,” Don Glauber said. “The Asian elephants are largely being exploited for rides and shows. The young elephants are often kidnapped from their families and then sent to zoos or circuses.”
Glauber said he was not trying to interfere with the circus’s Middlebury performances.
“I wasn’t trying to discourage anyone from going here,” Glauber said. “I have no animosity; there’s a lot of magnificent entertainment in there, and kids love this kind of experience.”
While Vermont has put up a general stop sign for elephants, Glauber said he realizes Garden Brothers elephants will simply rejoin the circus in other states on its tour, which will conclude in Nevada this July. The circus will be performing in six or seven cities per week during its lengthy run.
Quinn Griffin is box office manager for Garden Bros. Circus. He said the circus’s elephants are well treated and have been trained through “positive reinforcement,” rather than what he acknowledged were some “more barbaric and old-fashioned” methods used by some operations in years gone by.
Griffin said mistreatment of the animals would be counter-productive as well as cruel.
“Quite frankly, you have to take very good care of them, keep them warm and fed,” he said. “If they are grumpy, sick or unhappy for any reason, they will refuse to perform.”
Vermont, according to Griffin, is the only state that has a “catch-all” regulation against circus elephants.
“Every other state, you just need to make sure you have your permits in order, which is standard operation,” he said.
Still, Griffin acknowledged the elephants’ days under the big top might be numbered. The well-known Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus last year staged its final elephant performance and announced its animals would retire to a Florida conservation center. Then Ringling Brothers announced the circus would close this spring after a more than 100-year run.
“As long as it is legal to do so, we will certainly have elephants, because it is uncommon in the United Sates, and people like to see them,” Griffin said. “There’s definitely been a lot of pressure from animal activists. It remains to be seen how long it actually remains legal.”
Griffin believes the Garden Brothers circus would be able to function without elephants, though it would be challenging.
“We’ve done tours without elephants before, where it was just camels and ponies and it was successful,” he said. “You just don’t advertise elephants, but elephants are definitely synonymous with the term ‘circus.’ So while I don’t think it’s necessary, when you say ‘circus,’ people generally expect there are going to be elephants.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonsonindependent.com.

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