LONG BEACH — As big tops across America become bygone curiosities, some still relish the nostalgia of circuses, while others are rooting for their extinction.
For the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, the show simply must go on. It’s bringing the big top to the parking lot next to the Bolstad beach approach on May 30.
Performances scheduled for 5 and 7:30 p.m. are expected to feature tightrope walkers, trapeze fliers, contortionists, clowns, fire-jugglers and unicyclists.
“It’s meant to be the old-time, good, old-fashioned big top,” Alana Green, a circus spokeswoman, said. “It’s like walking back in time, experiencing something that’s joyful.”
For some, however, the circus becomes more controversial when animals are brought into the one-ring show. The Culpepper & Merriweather Circus will feature Francis, a black-maned African lion, golden tabby tigers Solomon and Delilah, and draft horses, dogs and ponies along with about two dozen circus performers.
“It’s fun, but equally disturbing,” Nansen Malin, of Seaview, said. Bringing a circus here “is tone deaf to what the community’s values are.”
Everybody likes a good time, she said. However, circuses, particularly small ones such as Culpepper & Merriweather, have a troubling track record.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited Culpepper & Merriweather dozens of times since 1991. The circus has a long history of neglecting to provide its animals with adequate veterinary care, food, space and shelter, according to the USDA reports.
Federal inspectors found Culpepper & Merriweather had put people at risk by keeping large, dangerous animals in cages that lacked the strength to stop them from getting out and harming the audience.
The circus has also been taken to court on several occasions. In 2011, a judge suspended Culpepper & Merriweather’s license for six months after she found the circus “willfully failed” to develop a plan for veterinary care, didn’t provide proper care for a tiger cub and had a “shockingly cavalier attitude” the health and safety of its animals.
The circus has had all kinds of adventures with animal escapes, too. Over the years, it has had elephants on the loose in small-town Kansas, camels sneaking out of their enclosures to graze and farm animals joining a pair of elephants for a jaunt in California.
Debbie Metzler, a captive wildlife specialist from Gig Harbor, said making sure everyone has access to public records, such as USDA inspection reports and citations, gives people the power to make an informed vote with their dollars. Until February, those records were easily available online.
“They just up and took them down one day,” Metzler said. “The public should be able to look up a record. That can help them make an informed decision.”
It’s particularly important to be mindful about businesses and nonprofits that are responsible for animals, she said.
Susie Goldsmith, of Long Beach, did exactly that. She had plenty of questions when someone from the circus called her house looking for a donation. As much as she would have liked to support the show’s local sponsor, the Long Beach Merchants Association, she said, she can’t give money to a circus that uses animals in its shows. She sees keeping animals captive, dragging them from town to town and using whips to force them to perform on demand as cruel.
Entertainers with Culpepper & Merriweather travel on a tight schedule from March to October, caged animals in tow. Days on tour are grueling, with early morning set-up, caring for animals, preparing to pull off acts with precision, two 90-minute performances in the evening, tear down and travel.
More often than not, they’re in a new town every day until the show stops for the final show in Hugo, Oklahoma, the storied “Circus City USA.”
“This type of traveling circus is an anachronism,” Goldsmith said. “Take a hint from Ringling Brothers. It’s an outdated form of entertainment.”
After a 146-year run, the world’s most historic circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey went dark for good after its final show on May 21. Even “the greatest show on earth” couldn’t adequately feed the interests of tech-hungry children or fend off attacks from animal-rights activists.
Goldsmith, however, is no circus-hater. She’s a fan of acrobats and Cirque du Soleil-style shows.
“These ‘circuses’ focus on humans who have a choice whether or not to be in a circus,” she said. “But having wild caged animals and even using dogs they refer to as their ‘pets’ should be prohibited.”
Green, the spokeswoman, said circus performers who handle animals are responsible for caring for their creatures too.
“When everyone takes care of their own, they’re treated like family members,” she said.
Green said people get the wrong idea about circus performers — they love animals, too. She’s seen an unfortunate situation with an animal get twisted into a story about her colleagues being animal-abusers too many times. She sees how they care for and connect with the animals. Her boss, circus manager Trey Key, who tames lions and tigers for the show, kisses Francis, the lion, on the face every morning.
Green said Culpepper & Merriweather has been trying to show everyone how much they care for their animals and how well they’re treated by letting people see what goes on behind the curtain. The traveling troupe is giving a free talk and tour when the tent is raised around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
The Long Beach Merchants Association was asked to take on promotion of the circus this year. In exchange, the nonprofit gets to keep about a quarter of proceeds from advance ticket sales, president Karl Hintz said. In the past, the local Lions Club has sponsored the show as a way of raising money for its service work.
Hintz said he understands concerns about how circus animals are treated, but they didn’t come up until after the merchants had sold roughly 300 tickets.
“What could we do?” he said. “Our decision was to plow on and heavily consider whether we do it again. Maybe that’s good enough reason not to do it next year.”