A performer with The Eleven Miller Performing Elephants rides an elephant raised up on its back legs as they perform the “Marvelous Mastery of Massive Mastodonic Mammals” act in the 2004 Hadi Temple Shrine Circus at Roberts Stadium on Thursday. The circus raises money for the Shriners to use in a various numbers of charities. The Shriners organize the circus, piecing together a variety of circus acts. Danny Gawlowski / Courier & Press Archives
A performer with The Eleven Miller Performing Elephants rides an elephant raised up on its back legs as they perform the “Marvelous Mastery of Massive Mastodonic Mammals” act in the 2004 Hadi Temple Shrine Circus at Roberts Stadium on Thursday. The circus raises money for the Shriners to use in a various numbers of charities. The Shriners organize the circus, piecing together a variety of circus acts. Danny Gawlowski / Courier & Press Archives
EVANSVILLE — Hadi Shrine Circus is back for Thanksgiving weekend, with  elephants and other animals still prominent in the 87-year Evansville tradition despite increasing pressure to retire them.

Ticket sales are brisk following last year’s cancellation due to COVID, officials said. Human and animal performers arrive this week, and Ford Center will host eight shows from Thanksgiving Day through Nov. 28.

Three-ring circuses featuring animals have plenty of fans, but they have also faced increasing scrutiny and scorn from organizations and governments concerned about their treatment of animals. 

Hadi Shrine said the shows are humane, family-friendly and highly popular, while Rachel Mathews, director of captive animal law enforcement at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, called them "a throwback to a crueler time."

Such division is reflected across the country. Six states, including Illinois, have restricted the use of animals in traveling acts, and so have some cities in other states.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ceased operations in 2017 amid backlash from animal rights groups. The owners of Ringling Bros. recently said circuses might return in 2023 — without animals.

The local circus markets itself as “The Last Great American Circus.” Dale Thomas, a Hadi Shrine spokesman, guessed fewer than 20 are left. A Shrine in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will host one in January.

Hadi Shrine has no plans to remove animals from its event, officials there said, citing high confidence in how the animals are treated, both on visits to Evansville and in their home environments.

Thomas said exceptional care is shown to both human and animal performers.

"I don’t understand or believe what they believe, but they have a right to believe it," Thomas said of animal rights groups. "We are going to have humane animal acts, as we always have. Shrine circuses produced across the country still use animals because people want them and still enjoy them."

Shrine: 'We don't have concern'

The local circus has been a family tradition for generations. Executive Director Joe Vezzoso Jr.'s own involvement goes back to 1970, when he joined Hadi Shrine.

"We have families who have been coming 30 years and have same the seats, transferred from Roberts Stadium to Ford Center," Vezzoso said.

Many animals used in the local circus come from Carson & Barnes Circus, a Hugo, Oklahoma, company. A page on PETA's website spells out a list of instances when Carson & Barnes has faced sanctions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state authorities.

A recent example was three years ago in Kentucky, when an animal handler was cited by the state's Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources for not complying with terms of the company's permit. 

PETA criticizes the training of animals for performance purposes. Mathews said trainers with Carson & Barnes "demand 100% compliance" from animals, who become afraid of consequences of not performing.

"Any Shrine that hires this (company) is supporting that cruelty," Mathews said. 

Vezzoso said animals brought to Evansville for the annual circus are in the care of families local Shriners have worked with for many years.

"At the current stage in their lives as a company, and in our lives, we don't have concern," Vezzoso said of Carson & Barnes.

Vezzoso disagreed with PETA's view that the training of animals is inhumane.

Animal rights groups often cite the use of bullhooks, which are metal rods with hooks on the end, to steer elephants. Vezzoso said verbal commands and ear tugs are used now for the same task.

"Most of their animals are born in captivity, raised in captivity and if they were put in the wild, their chances of survival would be very minimal," Vezzoso said of Carson & Barnes. 

"If we knew that the company that provides us the elephants didn’t provide a safe haven for them at all times, we definitely would not be using them," he added.

The circus website in recent days had listed a tiger act led by Adam Burck among this year's performers, but the act has since been removed from the online list.

Burck in June received a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection stating concerns about the health of a 15-year-old male tiger, as well as about travel cages which prevented tigers from moving comfortably.

Burck received a warning and has resumed performing, but Vezzoso said it hasn't been decided yet if his tiger act will be a part of the local circus this year.

"It's up in the air what we're going to do," Vezzoso said, adding Burck and his tigers performed at a recent Kansas City show.

PETA: 'The circus needs to change'

Animals are often front and center in the Evansville shows, but circus officials noted many other entertainers.

Bello Nock, a comedian and daredevil who was also part of the 2018 and 2019 Hadi Shrine Circus, is back this year as the show's headliner. His daughter, Annaliese, also performs.

Evansville's Boom Squad Inc., the nonprofit youth drumline, will be part of all eight shows during the weekend.

Chachi “The Rocketman” Valenica "makes his living as a human cannonball," according to the circus website, flying through the air at 55 mph, 65 feet above the ground and a distance of 165 feet.

There's a flying trapeze family, plus high jinks from the Hadi Funsters clowns

Criticism of circus animal acts is not likely to die down. Mathews cited the about-face of Ringling Bros., which used animals for 146 years before ending the practice.

"I don’t see a stronger signal that the circus needs to change, or eventually it will go out of business," she said.

Hadi Shrine Circus officials, however, intend to continue putting on the type of show that's lasted since 1933.

"I believe they are a minority viewpoint," Thomas said of animal rights activists. 

Vezzoso said the fact that advance ticket sales are ahead of their 2019 pace shows that area residents still support the circus and are eager for more pre-pandemic activities.

The local Shrine and others across the country support Shriners Hospitals for Children, which Vezzoso said motivates those involved with putting on the circus.

"We feel like we put on the best three-ring circus in the U.S. with Ringling being out of business," he said. "We are passionate about the Shine and the philanthropic portion of the Shrine. It's about providing entertainment, and revenue for the philanthropic mission."

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