An activist for an international animal rights group said she is one of two women Baraboo police are searching for after they disrupted an elephant act at Circus World last weekend.
Circus World staff told authorities that two women entered the museum Sunday morning and interrupted an elephant performance under the big top tent on the east side of the grounds. Workers escorted the protesters off the property, and they were gone when authorities arrived, according to a Baraboo Police Department incident report.
On Monday, Direct Action Everywhere activist Rebecca Kowalewsky confirmed in an interview that she and colleague Dayna Patik were responsible for interrupting the animal act. A photo obtained from Baraboo police shows two women being escorted from the performance arena. Patik has an online profile on the Direct Action Everywhere website and her photo looks similar to one of the women in the photo from the event. Kowalewsky said she was the other woman in the photo.
Baraboo Police Capt. Rob Sinden said authorities are seeking the protesters, who may be charged with disorderly conduct or trespassing, although the latter is unlikely.
“Based on my readings of the report, once they were escorted out, they did not return, so had they returned that would be different,” Sinden said. “That technically would not be trespassing once they’re asked to leave, or they are escorted off the grounds, and they do so.”
Once the elephants entered the performance ring about halfway through the Sunday morning show, the activists stood up, displayed signs and shouted in protest. Kowalewsky said the disruption was intended to expose the issue of “animal violence” in circuses through direct action.
“While people see circuses as family fun, the truth is that circuses for animals are a place of violence, and we are working to expose that and achieve total animal liberation,” she said.
Circus World Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said he spotted the two women behaving suspiciously near the museum grounds before the big top performance. He said the women were observing the circus from behind the museum’s Feld Building near the Baraboo River. Because the public is not allowed in the area, O’Donnell said he went to speak with the women, but they were gone when he arrived.
O’Donnell said he thought little of the incident, until he received a call from Circus World staff that two women were causing a disturbance in the big top. He said the activists continued to protest as they were escorted from the museum grounds by staff.
Kowalewsky said she and Patik complied with Circus World staff and left when asked. She declined to comment on whether she and Patik paid admission to enter Circus World.
“It’s not entertainment — it’s exploitation,” Kowalesky said.
Direct Action Everywhere is an “international, grassroots network of individuals who work to achieve total animal liberation through nonviolent, direct action,” according to its website. The group is based in the San Francisco Bay area and has chapters around the world.
O’Donnell said disrupting an elephant act with loud noises could be dangerous for the animals, performers and audience members. Despite the hazard, he said Circus World’s elephants and trainers were well prepared and handled the situation without incident.
O’Donnell said he believes there are safer ways for activists to share their message.
“I can think of a better and safer way that they could show their opinion, which would be like most other protesters who don’t try to infiltrate — who actually try to make their statement known,” he said. “They apply for a permit, and they show up and they picket.”
Kowalewsky said she’s involved with the group’s Wisconsin chapter, which is active primarily in Madison and Milwaukee. Direct Action Everywhere activists recently received widespread media attention when they were arrested for disrupting the annual Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest on July 4 in New York City.
Kowalewsky declined to comment on whether or not the group will stage future protests at Circus World, but added that the activists will not back down.
“We’re never going to shy away from anywhere that exposes violence towards animals,” she said.
O’Donnell said museum staff will watch for strange behavior on the grounds moving forward, but added that Circus World will not take significant measures to prevent another incident. Instead, he said the institution is looking forward to its Ringling homecoming and Big Top Circus Parade next week.
“I don’t want to have a knee-jerk response to the two ladies that felt that this was the appropriate platform to say their piece,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate vocal minority who disrupted our world here on Sunday, but forward we go.”