Should elephants be banned from circus in Madison?

MADISON -- The "Zor Shrine Circus" is back in Madison this week, but it's not all fun and games for everyone. The circus is taking some heat over their alleged treatment of elephants.

Madison's elephant history has its wrinkles. In the 1960s, an elephant killed a three-year-old girl. She was stomped at the Vilas Zoo after offering an elephant popcorn.

About a decade ago, the Vilas Zoo had two elephants - Penny and Winkie, until they were shipped out of the state when the USDA said their natural habitat at the zoo was inadequate. "I remember the elephants. I also remember them not looking very happy, and feeling pretty sad with the environment they were in," Julie Grosso with the Alliance for Animals said.

Penny and Winkie went to Ohio and Tennessee, but circus elephants still stop under the big top at the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center every year. Grosso says they're abused. She handed out leaflets this weekend, so the audience knows what to look for. "There's a picture of an elephant with little spots where trainers like to use the bull hook to get the elephant to perform in certain ways," Grosso said.

If activists like Grosso have their way, an elephant ban could become the law of the land. On Tuesday, Dane County will continue considering a new ordinance that would block elephant exhibitions in county facilities like the coliseum. However, organizers say the elephants are the stars of the show. "People come to see the animals, besides everything else, and the elephants play one of the biggest parts in a shrine circus. I've seen the animal care. They are treated very well. They are fed, they are bathed constantly. They are very well taken care of," John Thorstad with the Zor Shrine Circus said.

"I don't think elephants should be in the circus given their size. It's really difficult, in my opinion, to care for them," Grosso said.

The circus was actually the first event at the coliseum 58 years ago. Zor Shrine says they'll march on. "I can see elephants being around for a long, long time here at the coliseum," Thorstad said.

Zor Shrine has been hiring the George Carden Circus since 1986. Last year, they were cited for not enough vet care and having too few elephant handlers.