An animal rights group is accusing one of Circus World’s summer performers of animal mistreatment in a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but museum leaders and the performer say the allegations are false and misleading.
The Humane Society of the United States last week released the results of a 22-day undercover investigation into Ryan Easley’s ShowMe Tigers production, a traveling animal act consisting of seven female Siberian-Bengal tigers that performs at circuses across the country.
Easley and his tigers were a featured performance at Circus World last summer and are scheduled to return in July. The Baraboo museum contracts with its animal trainers and performers for the summer and is not licensed by the USDA. But its contracted performers, including Easley, are licensed and subject to unannounced USDA inspections.
Both the Humane Society and the USDA declined to provide a copy of the complaint that was filed against Easley.
The animal rights group says videos from its investigation, which were filmed between late December and mid-January while Easley performed with the Carden and Shrine Circuses in Oklahoma and Texas, show several potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
The Humane Society included links to several videos of Easley interacting with his tigers in its investigative report. The group claims the footage shows distressed tigers being whipped and forced to perform physically difficult tasks. The report also raises concern over the size of the tiger’s transportation cages, their diet and veterinary care.
“Our investigator spent several weeks with Ryan Easley, and documented a practice session, as well as several performances,” said Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife protection manager for the Humane Society. “He documented that Easley uses physical abuse, such as whipping the tigers and hitting them with sticks.”
Circus World Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said the allegations against Easley are “false, misleading and frustrating.” O’Donnell said the investigation’s findings are a dishonest yet clever marketing ploy, meant to incite anger and donations for the animal rights group.
“For fundraising opportunities, undercover investigations are some clever buzzwords that imply that those who are writing press releases and cleverly editing videos have more authority, knowledge and power than which they have,” he said. “They’re folly artists.”
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Easley questioned why the Humane Society opted to wait until May to release the results of an investigation that occurred during the winter.
“If they were concerned about the care my animals received, why did they wait four months to release this?” Easley asked.
Easley said the tools he uses to train his tigers are not used to hit, whip or inflict pain. He calls one a “target stick,” which he uses to steer the animal, and the other a “lunge whip” that he touches the tigers with in different areas so they respond to various verbal commands.
The crack of the lunge whip isn’t used to hit or intimidate the tigers, Easley said. He said the loud noise is used mostly for showmanship and as an audible queue for his tigers to begin an act.
“The cats think, ‘When I hear this sound that means we’re going to do this,’” Easley said. “There’s no pain associated with it.”
As for the allegations of improper diet, transportation and veterinary care alleged by the Humane Society, Easley said he’s been inspected by the USDA 22 times in the last five years and has not received a citation during that time. He said he believes his record with the USDA says more about his operation than the results of the Humane Society’s investigation.
“A USDA inspection is so encompassing over everything,” he said. “If you actually want the facts, look at the federal government that has been inspecting me, and look at what they’ve said about how I’ve been taking care of my animals.”
Easley said he did receive one citation from the USDA in 2012 for not properly treating a cut on one of his tigers’ legs. The issue, according to Easley, was that he was treating the wound under advisement from his home veterinarian, but had not contacted another professional to examine the cut on-site. Following the citation, Easley said he changed his operations to comply with the regulation and has not had any issues since.
Leahy said she hopes the results of the Humane Society’s investigation convince people to stay away from entertainment that features wild animals.
“We’re hoping that more and more people will reject attending wild animal acts at circuses and fairs and places like Circus World Museum,” she said.