As the third generation of his family to enter the traveling circus business, Zach Garden is well aware of the accusations people’s make about the treatment of animals at the circus.
During his grandfather’s time with the circus, Garden said performers would use whips and chains on animals during shows.
“That’s why circuses get such a bad rep(utation),” said Garden, the Piccadilly Circus’ general manager, who owns all of the animals except the elephants.
Garden contends that animal treatment has changed dramatically. He said his animals are never chained, get plenty of down time between shows and are trained with positive reinforcement.
Nonetheless, when the Piccadilly Circus arrived at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles Monday, residents were not giving it a very warm welcome.
On the Facebook pages of some of Suburban Life’s newspapers, several residents in the western suburbs expressed concerns over circus’ treatment of animals. For many, it is reason enough not to attend.
When asked why the circus has lost some of its prestige, Traci Sarpalius from Lemont said via Facebook, “...They are known for animal abuse which is taken a lot more seriously than when we were little."
Lori Reczek, of Darien, said the circus should be banned.
“Those animals belong in their natural habitat,” she wrote.
Cuinn Griffin, promotional director with Piccadilly Circus, said the circus has received no citations for animal cruelty.
The only area of concern remaining seems to be circus elephant handlers.
Frank Murray, an elephant handler with Piccadilly Circus earlier this year, was arrested on a warrant for charges related to alleged animal cruelty. Matt Stanton, spokesman for the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA), confirmed NJSPCA arrested Murray in May on a warrant issued years ago for alleged animal cruelty. It is unknown which circus Murray was working for at the time the warrant was issued.
Griffin said that while Murray worked for Piccadilly Circus prior to the arrest, he is no longer employed by the circus because of the charges.
Owners of circus animals are required to have a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the USDA enforces the Animal Welfare Act with unannounced inspections and citations, license holders, such as Murray, can also be charged for animal cruelty on the state-level by law enforcement agencies, according Dave Sacks, USDA spokesman. If charged, a license will still be valid until a state case is officially wrapped up, he said.
During a meeting at the circus big top Tuesday, Garden said the circus’ current elephant trainer, Brian Franzen, took over the business after his father.
Franzen’s record is not without controversy either. He was convicted of animal cruelty in 1998 when several emaciated ponies were confiscated from a filthy trailer, according to PETA.
At Piccadilly Circus, Garden said his animals get almost 24-hour care by a crew of seven animal caretakers.
While the elephants had yet to arrive Tuesday, several other types of animals including llamas, ponies, goats, sheep, an emu, and zebra in the circus’ petting farm roamed in one large pen shaded by a tent just outside the big top.
“Everyone gets along,” Garden explained.
Show camels also relaxed in a separate pen while other animals were held in the trailers they were transported in. Garden said every animal has a name.
“They are my best friends,” he said.
In fact, some of the animals including a handful of goats, ponies, llama and zebra were rescued from previous owners who could no longer care for them.
Garden recalled two llamas, who were very skinny and had extremely matted hair when he rescued them.
Now, Garden said they are living the life.
“These guys do nothing but eat all day long,” he said.
The animals also get plenty of human interaction, he added.
Jimi Legros, a sound and light engineer for Piccadilly circus, said he also helps take care of the animal. “There wouldn’t be a circus without the animals,” he said.
Legros recalled his own love of the circus as a child. Before making judgments, he said people should come to the circus to see how animals are treated first hand.
“The animals get treated better than the employees,” Legros joked.
For most animals, they perform about five minutes in each show that take place twice a day on weekdays and three times a day on weekend days.
To prepare for shows, Garden said the circus’ trainer, his cousin, never uses negative reinforcement.
“When you use negative reinforcement, they’ll turn on you,” Garden said. “They don’t trust you.”
Garden said he recently retired a 15-year-old tiger who now lives at a compound facility at his home with about 60 acres.
One day, he hopes to pass the circus business on to his two children.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “I spent my whole life learning the business. I love it.”