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Charity circus criticized by animal welfare advocates

by Amy Kingsley

When the Oasis Shrine Circus wound up its North Carolina tour in Greensboro on Monday, the aerialists, clowns and exotic animals probably had some unwanted spectators ‘— People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals activists who planned to protest.

PETA sent a letter Oct. 24 to Matt Brown, managing director of the Greensboro Coliseum, urging him not to host the Shrine Circus in the future because of concerns about animal treatment and spectator safety. In an interview that day, Brown said he had not yet received the letter.

Shrine temples do not own their own circus acts and contract the fundraisers out to professional companies. The Oasis Shriners, the Charlotte-based hosts of the event, contracted Hamid Circuses from New Jersey to organize and run the benefit. Hamid Circuses, in turn, does not own any of its exotic animals and arranges their use with different providers. Neither Jim Hamid, Sr., nor Oasis Shrine Executive Director Harvey Burgess knew what company would provide exotic animals for the Greensboro circus.

‘“We’re inspected by the [US Department of Agriculture] all the time,’” Hamid said. ‘“In order for us to be licensed ‘— just like you do with a dog or a cat.’”

In the letter, PETA described several exotic animal attacks on trainers and spectators at Shrine Circuses caused by unacceptable animal living conditions. The USDA enforces the standards set by the Federal Animal Welfare Act, including proper food, water, shelter and veterinary care. On PETA’s circus website, the organization lists several Shrine Circus contractors that do not comply with the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act, but Hamid Circuses is not among them.

‘“That’s exactly why a lot of circuses operate this way,’” said PETA spokeswoman Lisa Wathne. ‘“It is very difficult to provide information about their animal providers. If we know who they are then we can provide specific information.’”

Although the Animal Welfare Act regulates some aspects of animal care, Wathne said the law does not go far enough.

‘“The Animal Welfare Act is so weak that it basically endorses animal abuse,’” she said. ‘“It doesn’t protect bull hooks or electric prods. It doesn’t prohibit tearing baby animals away from their mothers. It doesn’t prohibit chaining elephants or keeping tigers in cages.’”

Burgess referred to the Animal Care Manifesto authored by George Hamid, the president of the Circus Producers Association and Hamid Circus, Inc. In it, trainers are encouraged to use positive reinforcement and avoid training through the infliction of pain. James Hamid, Sr. said he recalled only one animal attack in his circus ‘— a male lion that turned on his trainer more than 25 years ago.

The Shriners hold circuses as fundraisers for their national network of children’s hospitals. Hamid Circuses, which has been owned and operated by the Hamid family for four generations, specializes in these events. This is the first Oasis Shrine Circus to be held in Greensboro, according to Burgess. Before the circus opened in Greensboro, it stopped in Asheville, Boone and Concord.

Members of PETA have protested other circuses that performed at the Greensboro Coliseum, Brown said. In one recent incident, a scantily clad activist mired traffic downtown during a demonstration. He said the Coliseum had more problems with PETA than with circus animals.

‘“Talk about presumptuous,’” Brown said. ‘“With Hamid Circus, animal health is their first concern. You can’t just generalize all Shrine Circuses.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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