ST. LOUIS (AP) — A circus violated an animal welfare law by allowing three elephants to briefly get loose in Missouri and watering them too close to a Pennsylvania show's public area where a child managed to pose for a photo behind one of them, a federal agency alleges in a complaint.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the April 28 complaint, alleges that during a March 2014 fundraiser circus sponsored by Moolah Shriners in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Royal Hanneford Circus encouraged crowd noise that included audience members stomping on metal bleachers, spooking three elephants being led from the arena to their enclosure.
Those animals — Kelly, Viola and Isa — briefly got loose on the arena's lot where vehicles of circus employees and Shriners were parked, according to published reports at the time. The USDA alleges in the complaint by its inspection service that one elephant that made its way between two trailers sustained scrapes and cuts while another had superficial lacerations.
Three weeks later in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the USDA said, handlers of those elephants wrongly stopped to water the animals in a publicly accessible area while leading the animals from the performance area to their enclosure. An adult photographed a child standing behind the water-drinking elephants, violating federal regulations mandating sufficient distance or barriers between the animals and the public.
The USDA's complaint, which alleges both incidents constitute willful violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, names the Florida-based Royal Hanneford Circus and the Carson & Barnes Circus, the Hugo, Oklahoma, business that leased the elephants to Royal Hanneford. Messages left with both interests Friday were not immediately returned.
The complaint does not mention the Moolah organization.
The USDA's website shows that companies cited in such complaints may seek a hearing by a federal administrative law judge. Possible sanctions for any proven wrongdoing include up to $10,000 in civil penalties and possible license suspension or revocation, Colleen Carroll, the attorney who filed the complaint for the USDA's Office of General Counsel, told The Associated Press on Friday.
Carroll declined to discuss the details of the complaint.
The complaint comes at a time of increased scrutiny of elephants in public displays such as circuses. Last month, San Francisco supervisors approved a ban of performances of wild animals or starring them in movies, joining dozens of other places that frown upon using bears and big cats, elephants and monkeys for human entertainment.
Concern over the treatment of elephants has grown so much that Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, announced in March it would phase out elephant acts by 2018.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals "is asking families everywhere to stay away from all circuses that use animals," Delcianna Winders, the PETA Foundation's deputy general counsel, said in a statement Thursday reacting to the USDA complaint.