By Emily Weitz
Early this week, deep in the heart of the Shinnecock Reservation, the Cole Brothers Circus came to town.
And while there were plenty of cars full of delighted children headed to the big top tent, the crowd that greeted them Monday as they turned onto Shinnecock Indian Nation land was anything but jolly. Posters of chained elephants and caged tigers were displayed as cars passed, and protesters pleaded for them to turn back.
“Everybody likes the circus,” said Noyac resident Dorothy Frankel, an organizer of the boycott. “Until they find out what happens behind the scenes — then nobody likes the circus.”
While Frankel and her fellow demonstrators support circuses in general, they do not support the way animals are treated in certain circus acts, and Cole Brothers, they say, is one of the perpetrators.
“Cole Brothers has quite a few fines for abusive treatment of animals,” said Frankel. “Several years ago they were banned from Southampton Town, and we were grateful for that.”
Protesters say some of the charges against Cole Brothers include violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), including allegations like failure to provide veterinary care to a malnourished elephant. Protestors also allege the circus uses a bull hook, a sharp instrument, to prod their animals into doing certain things.
“It’s a sharp, forked instrument,” said Zelda Penzel, president of People for the End of Animal Cruelty and Exploitation. “They know the tender spots and they hit them with this sharp fork to force the movements. In Southampton we have a law that prohibits the use of these sharp tools.”
However, protestors say the circus was able to get around town law by putting up their big top on the sovereign Shinnecock Indian Nation Reservation. At first, Frankel said, she was sure her group would be able to work with the tribal council to keep the circus from coming.
“We documented and communicated the violations that have gone to the Cole Brothers Circus, but the tribal council is not honoring that and has insisted that this hasn’t taken place,” she said.
For their part, representatives of the Shinnecock Nation say they do not believe these accusations.
“Any charges of maltreatment of animals, circus or otherwise, is of concern to us. Absolutely,” said Randy King, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Shinnecock Nation. “But in the several years Cole Brothers has been setting up here, we have not observed any evidence of animal abuse.”
Penzel notes the primary thing these protestors oppose is the use of exotic animals, in this instance elephants and tigers, in the circus acts.
“After Southampton Town passed the ban on the exploitation of exotic animals five or six years ago they started to come without the elephants,” said Penzel. “That was fine. But then they went to the Shinnecocks and for the past three years they’ve been bringing elephants and tigers.”
As she spoke, Penzel wore a clown wig and held a sign of a tiger chewing on the bars of its cage. Some passing cars displayed thumbs-up at the protestors, while others called out in opposition, “We love the circus!” One woman stopped her car to ask if she was going the right way for the circus, and Penzel told her, “Don’t take your children there!”
“It educates people to something they tend to ignore,” said Penzel of protesters efforts. “This is no fun for the animals — traveling in box cars, wearing tutus and performing ridiculous tricks … This is cruelty. This is abuse.”
In response to the argument that the Shinnecock Indian Nation has the right to use their land to make an income for their people, Frankel agreed.
“We encourage them to do things where they’re earning money,” she said. “We are in favor of the Reservation. We all wanted to look the other way, but we can’t. That’s the problem.”
photography by Michael Heller