A former employee of the nation's largest traveling circus Tuesday claimed she witnessed vicious acts of animal cruelty and urged the Common Council to ban events in Buffalo that include exotic animal acts.
"The abuse was not once in a while, it occurred every day," Archele Hundley told lawmakers. "The elephants, horses and camels were hit, punched, beaten and whipped by everyone from the head of animal care down to inexperienced animal handlers hired out of homeless shelters."
The West Virginia woman claimed handlers are taught to keep the animals afraid.
But an executive with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus denied the allegations and submitted written testimony calling a ban "unnecessary and unjustified."
"We feel very strongly that our animal-care practices are second to none," Thomas L. Albert, the circus' vice president of government relations and animal policy, told The Buffalo News in a telephone interview.
Albert challenged Hundley's credibility, saying she only worked for Ringling Bros. for about two months last year. He also said that circus officials never heard Hundley's claims until animal advocates started "trotting" her around the country.
Hundley called that claim a lie.
"When I voiced concerns to Ringling management about the animal abuse, I was either ignored or told, 'If you don't like it, pack your bags,' " she insisted.
The Council's Legislation Committee held the hearing after advocates lobbied for a law that would make Buffalo off-limits to circuses that use lions, elephants and other exotic animals. More than 20 municipalities across the nation already have imposed such bans, including Hollywood, Fla.
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. will likely sponsor legislation proposing such a ban in Buffalo, and Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. of the Niagara District said he might co-sponsor the bill.
Albert said animals remain the top attraction for a traveling circus, adding that Ringling Bros. is committed to making them feel "safe and secure." He said the circus has been coming to Buffalo since 1919, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined their operations. He said he hopes Buffalo follows the lead of other municipalities that have rejected bans, including Denver.
Circuses help to reinforce the role that people play as caretakers of animals, Albert said.
The education argument was dismissed by Jennifer Radecki of Animal Advocates of Western New York. She said exhibiting elephants "dressed up and performing silly tricks" contributes nothing to people's appreciation for animals.
Supporters of the ban claim animals in traveling circuses spend a lot of time in feces-filled boxcars or chained in arenas. They also downplayed the drawing power of animal acts.
"Banning exotic-animal acts would bring an end to the mistreatment that I witnessed on a daily basis but was powerless to stop," Hundley said.