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Shriners circus has fewer animals and more stunts, but PETA wants the bears out, too

Ainad Shriners Parade

The annual Ainad Shriners Circus Parade makes its way through downtown Belleville in 2018. The organization has been putting on circuses in Southern Illinois since the 1960s.
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The annual Ainad Shriners Circus Parade makes its way through downtown Belleville in 2018. The organization has been putting on circuses in Southern Illinois since the 1960s.

Circuses across the country have made changes in recent years, responding to new government regulations and complaints from animal-rights activists who object to performances by trained wildlife.

The Ainad Shriners circus in Southern Illinois is no exception.

Tigers, elephants, ponies and dogs were still taking its three-ring stage in the spring of 2017, two months before Illinois became the first state to ban the use of elephants in traveling acts. Tigers returned in 2018, but they’re not part of this year’s lineup in early June.

“Everything is different,” said Mike Strohm, administrator for the East St. Louis-based Ainad temple. “It’s being called the ‘circus of thrills.’ Our focus is on motorcycle (and) high-wire acts. The focus is away from the animals. We only have one animal act.”

That act, called “Castle’s Bears,” is being criticized by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a Virginia-based animal-rights organization.

PETA sent a letter to local media this week, calling on the circus to go “animal-free” and drop performances by bears named Nanook and Tutter, which it described as “complex wild animals.”

“They are muzzled, dressed in costumes, yanked around on leashes, jabbed with metal prods and forced to perform tricks,” wrote Colleen O’Brien, PETA’s vice president of communications.

“A wildlife expert who observed this act last year opined that the bears were managed through ‘fear, coercion and punishment’ and suffered from ongoing physical and psychological trauma. Video footage from a Shrine circus shows one of the bears urinating during a performance, something these animals do when they’re distressed or scared.”

The Ainad Shrine Circus of Thrills poster shows images of an acrobat, a trapeze artist, motorcycle and motorcross stuntmen, an ATV monster truck, a bear riding a scooter and a camel wearing a shriner’s hat, known as a fez.

Circus poster
The Ainad Shrine Circus of Thrills poster shows images of an acrobat, trapeze artist, motorcycle and motorcross stuntmen, an ATV monster truck, a bear riding a scooter and a camel wearing a shriner’s hat, known as a fez. Provided

The circus includes 10 shows in Belleville, Highland, Altamont and Marion June 1-9. Proceeds go for operational costs, building maintenance and private and public events that help support Shriners charities. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $10 for children at www.ainadshriners.org.

Next year’s circus could be affected by bills introduced in the Illinois General Assembly this year, if they’re enacted into law. Both would amend the 2017 law that banned the use of elephants in traveling acts.

Senate Bill 154 would prohibit performances by bears, cougars, elephants, giraffes, gray and red kangaroos, hippopotamuses, jaguars, most leopards, lions, non-human primates, rhinoceroses, tapirs, tigers and zebras. It was referred to the Assignments Committee on March 22.

House Bill 2554 would prohibit performances by “exotic” animals from foreign countries, including but not limited to lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, camels, antelope, anteaters, kangaroos, water buffalo, some species of foreign domestic cattle and wild animals. It was tabled on April 3.

Legislation sponsors Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora) and Rep. Camille Y. Lilly (D-Oak Park) couldn’t be reached for comment.

Alan Blumhorst, owner of Rainbow Ranch in Nashville, Illinois, explains his operation and his opposition to proposed legislation that could affect his traveling petting zoo.

The Humane Society of the United States is among the animal-rights organizations in favor of the Senate bill, calling the House bill too broad. Its captive wildlife protection manager, Debbie Leahy, argued in March that some animals don’t travel well and others can pose unacceptable risk to the public.

“(Animals) are not given a lot of space, and life on the road means they don’t have access to things like emergency veterinary care,” she said.

Legislation opponents include Alan Blumhorst, owner of Rainbow Ranch, a 100-acre farm near Nashville, Illinois, that allows schoolchildren to visit his goats, sheep, llamas, donkeys, horses, fallow deer, swans, peacocks, alpacas, exotic cattle and camel. He has a red kangaroo staying with a friend in Missouri, and he plans to replace a zebra that died.

Blumhorst also operates a traveling petting zoo and furnishes donkeys and camels for nativity scenes. He understands the need to deal with people in the industry who mistreat animals, but he thinks those with no U.S. Department of Agriculture violations should be allowed to stay in business.

“I work my butt off to make sure all my critters are good and taken care of, and I’m not letting anything slide,” he said in March.

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Children ride Cindy, an Asian elephant, at Belle-Clair Fairgrounds before the start of the Ainad Shrine Circus in 2012. Most animal acts have been replaced with stuntmen, acrobats and high-wire artists this year.

Animal acts have been part of circuses since the 1700s, although they started with horses before expanding to include lions, tigers, bears and elephants. In recent years, it’s been challenging for operators to keep the family-oriented, traveling shows going with new government regulations and protests by animal-rights activists.

Feld Entertainment Inc. closed down its iconic, 146-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2017, reporting a significant decrease in ticket sales after a decision to stop using elephants.

That decision came despite the outcome of a 2000 lawsuit filed by several animal-rights organizations, claiming the company had mistreated its elephants. Feld counter-sued, leading to settlements that forced the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to pay $9.3 million in 2014 and the Human Society and others to pay nearly $16 million in 2016.

Last year, New Jersey became the first state to ban the use of all wild and exotic animals in traveling acts.

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Trainer Michael Ramos gets four tigers and a liger to lie down next to each other at the Ainad Shrine Circus in 2014. Most animal acts have been replaced with stuntmen, acrobats and high-wire artists this year.

This year’s Ainad Shrine Circus of Thrills kicks off with a parade at 7:30 p.m. May 31 in downtown Belleville. It will begin at Third and A streets, go west on A, west on Main, south on Third, east on Washington, north on Third and east on Main, ending at Forest Avenue.

The parade will be followed by 10 shows in four communities:

  • 7 p.m. June 1 and 2 and 6 p.m. June 2 at Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville
  • 7 p.m. June 3 at Madison County Fairgrounds in Highland
  • 7 p.m. June 5 and 6 at Effingham County Fairgrounds in Altamont
  • 2 and 6 p.m. June 8 and 9 at Williamson County Fairgrounds in Marion

“Normally, we have 11 shows, but we’ve (taken) two days out of our shows, just to give everybody a break,” Strohm said.

The entertainment line-up includes the BMX Stunt Team (bicycle motorcross); Chicago Boyz acrobats, as seen on “America’s Got Talent;” Espanas Sky incline motorcycle racing; Sensational Sourens quick-change duo; Nerveless Nocks aerial act; X-Metal Riders motorcycle and ATV stunt performers; Blake Wallenda on the high wire; juggling by Nicolas Souren; and Fish the Clown and his Lemonzine.

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Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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