Activists Protest Cole Brothers Circus

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



  1. As of February 2008, Cole Bros. no longer has its own USDA license and leases animal acts from other circuses, including Carson & Barnes Circus which the USDA fined for elephant abuse after employees were caught on videotape beating elephants with bullhooks and shocking them with electric prods. Many of the animal acts used by Cole Bros. have been cited by the USDA for numerous violations including failing to provide veterinary care. In 2011, Cole Bros. and its president pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act by illegally selling two Asian elephants and were sentenced to probation and ordered to pay more than $150,000 in fines.

    In July of 2011 the USDA filed charges against the Cole Bros. Circus for numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act including “failure to provide veterinary care to an emaciated elephant, failure to handle an elephant in a way that minimized the risk of harm to the public and the elephant, handlers who lacked the training and knowledge to handle tigers and elephants in public, and selling tigers without a dealer license.” These violations should have resulted in a substantial fine, but on April 9, 2012, Cole Bros. reached a $15,000 settlement with the USDA .

    Animals in circuses and traveling shows suffer horrific abuse, cruelty, neglect and exploitation. Magnificent big cats like lions and tigers are housed in cramped cages, majestic elephants are shackled and chained in trucks and train box cars; “training” methods utilize violence, fear, and intimidation to make animals perform ridiculous unnatural stunts.

    Countries around the world, as well as municipalities in the United States, have partial or full bans on circus animals. On November 2, 2011, Congressman Jim Moran introduced The Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, H.R. 3359, a bill that is extremely vital to the lives of these animals, to ending this cruelty and ensuring the safety of the public. This federal bill would amend the A.W.A. to restrict the use of exotic and non-domesticated animals in circuses and traveling shows.

    The overwhelming evidence and documentation of the abuse animals endure in circuses is irrefutable. The more knowledgeable the public becomes about the suffering of circus animals and the serious safety issues involved with using dangerous animals in performances, the less inclined they will be to support, promote, employ and attend circuses that abuse and exploit animals.

  2. So, Randy King states he did not “see” any abuse, so it’s ok for this circus to be you really think they would beat these animals in public??? The ONLY way to get these beautiful animals to do these ridiculous tricks is to beat them. They do not get trained with treats, they are not domesticated like the dog or horse. So, all of you that go to this circus, I want you to look at these majestic animals and know they suffer a horrible life for your entertainment..

  3. Such a fuss over circus animals? These people have no lives and are disillusioned. Please do something useful with your time and volunteer for a worthy cause. These animals are well cared for. There are humans that are treated much worse by their employers. Where is the concern for them? Would these animals be any better off in zoo’s or in the wild where they can be killed by poachers? Should we ban all pets in captivity? There are so many more important things to concern yourselves with.

  4. Warren Kerr, You mention “the humans that are treated much worse (than the animals) by their employers”. Humans have a choice. Animals are chained, prodded and traveled around AGAINST THEIR WILL. And according to reports, are not provided proper healthcare. Not to mention the mental abuse incurred by the events of the PHYSICAL abuse.

    Get a clue, Warren. And I hope your veal entree at your next dinner is satisfying. A calf, locked in a cage against its will, in such small quarters that he can’t turn around so his muscles won’t develop to make for a most tender meal…

  5. The difference is humans can speak and choose for themselves no one chains them to a post separates them from their families intentionally breaks their spirits with brutal torture and starvation, isolation in cages everyday and every night of their lives let out only to be beaten into performing ridiculous tricks for sadistic people who finance the lifelong torture and enslavement of these wild animals for their own profit. De Nile is a river in Egypt. Circuses got away with profiting from the torture of wild animals for many decades but now with the Internet and social media everyone can see for themselves. Anyone who denies it is sitting back and collecting cash on the backs of the lifelong torture of these animals. youtube cole bros abuse. There is an ENDLESS supply of public records of their USDA violations and horrific torture of these sentient beings. The Shinnecocks need to be ashamed of their horrific greed leading them to cash out on the lifelong enslavement and toeture of sentient beings.