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Idaho Students Spend Their Saturday Protesting Outside Touring Circus: 'They're a Relic of Medieval History'

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The Elephant Student Project (L-R): Devon Brown, Evathea Drogas, Gabe Delgado, Sam Laski, Will Griffith, Harrisson Blamires, Anthony Corrales
  • The Elephant Student Project (L-R): Devon Brown, Evathea Drogas, Gabe Delgado, Sam Laski, Will Griffith, Harrisson Blamires, Anthony Corrales


A group of animal rights advocates—many of them students at The Sage School in Idaho's Wood River Valley—are expecting to spend the better part of their Saturday protesting the appearance of the Jordan World Circus, which has brought its circus animals to the community of Hailey this weekend.

After finding some success in bringing their cause before Blaine County commissioners and the Ketchum City Council, the Elephant Student Project, organized by Sage School staff member Maya Burrell, is now taking its fight to the school's hometown of Hailey.

A presentation by the students to the Hailey City Council in May was, according to Burrell, "convincing and accurate."  But, despite those attempts, Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle cemented the city's decision with a tie-breaking vote to issue a permit to Jordan World Circus to return with its exotic animal acts.

“We didn’t just throw stuff at people,” Burrell said. “We gave them plenty of time and information to make our case.”

Hailey City Council members who said they were in favor of granting the permit argued that the students' evidence showed mistreatment of circus animals in other areas of Jordan World Circus’ touring route, but not specifically in Hailey. Ultimately, the council and mayor voted 3-2 to welcome the Jordan World Circus to Hailey for another year.

That decision came about a week before an ordinance passed by Blaine County banning all wild animal exhibitions in the area. The ordinance extended across all of unincorporated Blaine County but did not cover the city of Hailey. The city of Ketchum passed its law banning exotic animal acts in 2014.

“Its difficult to understand [Hailey’s] decision,” said Matt Rossell, who works as campaigns manager for Animal Defense International. “It seems like their decision is out of step with what the community wants to see.”

Rossell flew to Hailey to present undercover videos from circus investigations that showed elephants breaking into uncontrollable fights and trainers jabbing animals with electric prods.

“A tiger does not want to jump through a flaming hoop,” Rossell said. “These animals are taken at a young age and dominated with weapons so they will perform.”

Esteban Fassio, advertising and event booking manager at Jordan World Circus, denied that any of the footage featured Jordan World Circus animals or trainers.

What's more, he added, Jordan World Circus doesn’t actually own any animals. Instead, they hire independent, USDA-approved trainers whose animals are routinely checked for safety.

“They don’t have proof enough,” Fassio said. “They’ve poisoned the kids’ minds and we’re not responsible for what we are being judged for.”

The USDA in May filed a complaint directed at animal exhibitors Carson and Barnes and circus Royal Hanneford, claiming that both parties are responsible for mistreatment of the animals in their care. Rossell said that the same arguments could be applied to the Jordan World Circus and its contracted trainers.

Even so, Fassio said that the circus has never had problems with mistreated animals and that “to my knowledge, no animals have ever escaped.”

Rossell found that, across the country, the number of attendees to circuses focused on animal exhibitions is declining. Fassio acknowledged this drop, stating that audiences have declined by more than 50 percent at Jordan World Circus' Hailey performances in the past two years.

Thirty-one countries have passed bans or restrictions on wild animals in circuses. In May, Hawaii became the first state to stop granting permits for wild animal acts anywhere within its borders.

“Average, compassionate people do not want to support that kind of abuse,” Rossell said. “These wild animals are social, complex and intelligent animals. The more we learn about their needs, the more we realize their needs are not being met.”

Fassio said the treatment that animals receive at Jordan World Circus is more than adequate and follow commonly accepted practices.

“People need to trust more in the circus,” Fassio said. “It’s a tradition, and there’s people that want to kill it.”

Burrell’s background studying elephants in Africa has fueled her passion for the cause, pointing her toward making changes in circuses around the nation.

“Traveling animal circuses are a relic of medieval history,” Burrell told the Hailey City Council. “They have no place in our evolved society. Let’s be on the right side of history.”

Beyond circuses, Burrell said she hopes to direct more efforts toward animal mistreatment in Idaho's wildlands and the problems surrounding poaching and habitat degradation. But, in the end, she stressed it was important to continue efforts in the Wood River Valley with her student group.

“Once you start reading, [lawmakers] hear what you say and you look at their faces and you see that, ‘Oh-they-look-engaged.- Let’s-fix-this-problem' look,’” Elephant Student Project member Gabe Delgado said.

The students said they plan to appear prior to Saturday's two performances—scheduled for 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Saturday, June 6—to explain to attendees that the “circus animals had been abused to learn tricks for their entertainment.”