The whole ordeal started last week when we received a press release and videotape from PETA. The animal rights group was criticizing UniverSoul Circus using in their shows elephants that are owned and trained by Carson & Barnes, which owns a fleet of elephants and leases them out to other circuses. Animal Care Director Tim Frisco is part of a well-known elephant training family led by his father, Joe Frisco Sr., who got his start with Ringling Bros. The family is also a prime target of animal rights groups who claim the family exploits and abuses their animals.
The videotape included in the PETA press release features Tim Frisco during a 1999 "training" session at the Carson & Barnes headquarters in Oklahoma. The tape is only about six minutes long, but it's six brutal, sickening minutes. In it, Frisco repeatedly beats elephants with a "bullhook" (a wooden or metal pole with a steel hook at the end) and jabs them with an electric prod. Equally upsetting is the way Frisco shouts obscenities at the elephants and the sadistic instructions he gives the other would-be trainers. "Tear that foot off! Sink it (the bullhook) in the foot! Tear if off! Make "em scream!" is just a small sample. (See sidebar for transcript).
While the tape left little doubt about the allegation that Frisco abused animals, we checked out PETA's charge that Carson & Barnes -- the company that employs Frisco -- was supplying animals to UniverSoul Circus. After some vague and misleading denials from both parties, we finally got to the bottom of it. And the truth doesn't reflect well on either Carson & Barnes or UniverSoul.
We first contacted UniverSoul to see if they are indeed using elephants owned and trained by the Frisco family. Hank Ernest, senior publicist for UniverSoul Circus, denied that they're using any animals trained by the Frisco group. He said they have contracted with Frisco in the past, but not this year. Rather, he said, they are now using elephants from two other outfits -- Miller Equipment and Woodcock Elephants. He emphasized that none of the animals on the PETA film have any connection with UniverSoul Circus.
"At some point you may need to question PETA on their tactics," he said. "Their misrepresentation of our circus is shameful. PETA is not going to be satisfied until all animals are free and everyone is a vegetarian. Our audiences go to our shows because of their quality. We've survived for 10 years because we put on an excellent production. PETA only energizes our fans."
Coincidentally, one of the groups UniverSoul says it is using, Woodcock Elephants, has also come under fire from PETA. The group cites a 2002 USDA report in which William Woodcock commented to a USDA official that if he gets any defiance from elephants, he'll "beat the hell out of them" and that the elephants will sometimes disobey him in public because "they know I can't hit them with the stick as much."
We contacted Carson & Barnes to see what they had to say in response to PETA's allegations and the disturbing videotape, and to see if they still employ Tim Frisco.
A. Wilkins, director of advance coordination for Carson & Barnes, replied via email: "PETA's "doctored' tape is over five years old. Mr. Frisco did indeed use poor taste in his language choices. He did not, nor has he ever, abused one of our elephants. Both internal and external investigations were conducted and did not reveal any cause for dismissal of Mr. Frisco. [In December 2002, the USDA fined the circus $400 for improper handling of animals.] The family that owns the elephants that are with UniverSoul still employs Mr. Frisco. UniverSoul does not have elephants touring with them that were depicted on the PETA video. Mr. Frisco is not with UniverSoul Circus. There are two issues, animal care -- we stand on our record of providing good care for all our animals; and animal rights -- where PETA is pushing a political agenda and using any means necessary to alter the relationships between animals -- humans and other species."
In response, Leslie Armstrong of PETA stated: "All you have to do is look at the video and see that he (Tim Frisco) did abuse the elephants."
Something wasn't adding up. Carson & Barnes' A. Wilkins said, "The family that owns the elephants that are with UniverSoul still employs Mr. Frisco." Yet the company that employs Frisco is her own, Carson & Barnes, which UniverSoul's spokesperson claimed they don't contract with anymore. Apparently, UniverSoul and Carson & Barnes didn't get their story straight before talking to us.
So, back we went to both UniverSoul Circus and Carson & Barnes. Once and for all, does Carson & Barnes -- the company that still employs Frisco, who was caught on tape abusing animals -- supply UniverSoul with elephants?
"Yes, Carson Barnes, through the Miller Equipment Co," replied Ernest from UniverSoul via email. "Unfortunately, I do not keep up with who they employ. He apparently does not work directly with us." In other words, Ernest's previous statement that UniverSoul Circus isn't using Carson & Barnes any longer and is now getting their elephants from two other outfits -- Miller Equipment and Woodcock Elephants - was misleading at best.
We never heard back again from Carson & Barnes.
PETA's Armstrong says that while UniverSoul's general concept -- promoting family values, empowerment and self-esteem via a cast of multi-ethnic performers -- is positive, she wishes they would extend that message of compassion and kindness to their animals.
"UniverSoul does not own any of their animals, they subcontract them out," Armstrong said. "They would be the perfect circus to get rid of animals and just feature their other acts.
"Even if these trainers aren't beating their animals, the lifestyle is inhumane," Armstrong continued. "These animals are taken away from their families and homelands and are chained and caged. There are so many people starting to recognize how horrible this is. It's hard to change tradition, but more communities have enacted outright bans on circuses and sponsors are backing out. Things are changing."
"Make 'em Scream"Tape of elephant training not for the faint-heartedBy Sam Boykin
A spokesperson for Carson & Barnes, which used to provide animals for the UniverSoul Circus, said they had seen no reason to discontinue getting animals that had been trained by Tim Frisco. Here is a sample of what Frisco said as he aggressively and repeatedly beat the elephants with a "bullhook" and jabbed them with an electric prod. His vicious instructions and sadistic statements are what the Carson & Barnes spokesperson characterized as "poor taste in language choices." A PETA employee working undercover caught Frisco's words and actions on videotape in 1999. To view the tape, go to circuses.com or circuswatch.com and click on "Carson & Barnes training tape."
As Frisco instructs an elephant trainer how to use the bullhook, he shouts: "Tear that foot off! Sink it in the foot! Tear if off! Make "em scream!"
Frisco explains his training methods: "Don't touch "em. Hurt "em. Hurt "em. Make "em scream. If you're scared to hurt "em, don't come in the barn. When I say rip his head off, rip his fucking foot off. . .it's very important that you do it. When he starts squirming too fucking much, both fucking hands -- Boom! -- right under that chin. (Frisco then swings the bullhook like a baseball bat to illustrate.)
"When he fucks around too much, you fucking sink that hook and give it everything you got."
"Sink that hook into "em. . .when you hear that screaming then you know you got their attention. Right here in the barn. You can't do it on the road. I'm not gonna touch her in front of a thousand people. She's gonna fucking do what I want and that's just fucking the way it is. Make "em holler, let "em run from ya."
"I am the boss, I will kick your fucking ass."
"I'll kick the shit out of you little prick."
On the Carson & Barnes Circus website, they have pictures showcasing a young baby elephant named Jennie. The website reads:
Tim Frisco, the circus' Animal Care Director, was present at Jennie's birth, and has rarely been far from her since. There is an amazing bond between the two, no doubt strengthened by the many years Tim and Jennie's mother have worked together. He has Isa's absolute trust. "Jennie is a natural performer," Tim recently said, "she loves showing off." They began working together early in Jennie's life, to develop the impressive act she now performs with ease. His many years of living and working with elephants have convinced Tim Frisco of the intelligence of elephants, and Jennie has shown herself to be a cut above most. She appears along with 20 other elephants in the latest edition of this incredible five-ring spectacle."