For the third straight year, Tonja Robertson has shown up on a cold December evening to protest the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. It’s one of the five-to-six protests she participates in each year, which include the Indianapolis Zoo on “Empty the Tanks Worldwide” day, an annual international protest and public awareness campaign against the cetacean captivity industry.

Protests offering high visibility are her preference because they provide better opportunities for raising awareness. This year, she joined about 150 others from the Indiana Animal Rights Alliance and a heavier-than-usual police presence on opening night of the circus.

She does it because she believes that a more peaceful world is possible and that if people are informed about animal suffering, they will do something about it.

Vegetarian since 1983 and vegan since 2005, Robertson has always felt compassion for animals, but she’s become a more vocal animal activist over the past 10 years since closing her gift shop in Brown County. “I was prompted to advocate for animals because their suffering is so horrendous and their need for advocates to work on their behalf is so great,” she explains. “Animals can’t advocate or lobby on their own behalf; it’s up to us. It’s up to us to pull back the curtain on animals’ suffering.”

One encounter with two dads continues to inspire her. “To my surprise, they listened intently to why we were there and said they always wondered about how the animals were trained and transported.” They proceeded inside with their families, but promised to do some research and watch undercover videos to educate themselves. “That is what I hope we spur everyone attending the circus into doing.”

Instead, most circus-goers drop their gaze and hurry past the line of activists carrying signs and handing out literature. Nevertheless, Robertson continues to believe in the effectiveness of peaceful protests. “Just look at SeaWorld in San Diego. Stock has dropped. Attendance has dropped as people have come to appreciate the animals there as sentient beings who don’t belong in an enclosed tank — and now SeaWorld has announced the end to their killer whale performances.”

legal issues

Similarly, earlier this year Ringling announced that they would begin phasing out elephant performances and stop using elephants by 2018. So why continue to protest?

“Their decision indicated that the elephant performances would continue for some time, so nothing has changed as far as the elephants’ suffering goes,” Robertson states, “not to mention the other animals that are forced to travel and perform.”

She, like many other animal lovers and activists, believes that no sentient being should be forced through fear of physical pain to engage in unnatural acts for entertainment purposes. “To be whipped or prodded with a bullhook, to give birth while chained, to keep juvenile elephants chained in the dark to break their spirit is cruel beyond belief.”

Such tactics and more are documented practices by Ringling handlers. Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society in the U.S., recounted protracted legal battles over Ringling’s treatment of elephants during an NPR interview in March, noting that elephants are “intelligent, sociable animals” who would typically travel hundreds of miles in the wild, but who are “kept in chains for 22 hours a day, hit with bullhooks and shuttled around to more than 100 cities a year. It’s no life for an animal.”

Despite losing a 14-year legal battle against Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling’s parent company, over allegations that circus trainers mistreat elephants, HSUS and other groups brought the issue to the nation’s attention. Several cities and counties and the state of Hawaii have since imposed bans or restrictions on the use of animals in circuses.

Rather than fight it, Ringling spokesman Stephen Payne said the Feld family decided to respond to the shift in public mood by slowly retiring its 13 elephants and thus ending a 145-year circus tradition.

HSUS isn’t the only group that has sued Ringling. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Protection Institute filed against Feld, alleging violation of the Endangered Species Act, systemic abuse and exploitation of elephants with the use of metal bullhooks and chaining their legs when not performing. An appeals court dismissed that lawsuit on the grounds that the organizations didn’t have the standing to bring suit because they couldn’t establish legal “injury” to themselves.

But in 2011 the law caught up with Ringling when the U.S. Department of Agriculture slapped Feld Entertainment with a record-breaking penalty for the same animal welfare violations the ASPCA had cited. The circus agreed to settle, paying $270,000 for violating the AWA on multiple occasions from June 2007 to August 2011 and agreeing to implement new training protocols for animal handlers, all while admitting no wrongdoing or violation of USDA policy.

In a statement, Kenneth Feld, CEO, promised to work with the USDA “in a cooperative and transparent manner” to ensure the health and quality care of the animals.

Clear as mud

But transparency apparently goes only so far. Circus workers stopped photographers from taking pictures of the animals housed in small, drafty tents in a concrete parking garage across the street from Bankers Life Fieldhouse during their four-day stay in Indianapolis and refused to answer questions about the care and housing of the animals.

Similarly, Animal Care & Control officers who initially offered to provide an inspection report later reversed that decision. However, Deputy Chief Kim Wolsiffer, Enforcement Operations, did answer select questions, explaining that “all animals held within the City of Indianapolis are to be kept in accordance with Chapter 531 of the Revised Code of the City of Indianapolis/Marion County.”

Ringling’s onsite veterinarian is required to provide care records and work with ACC enforcement officials if ACC’s on-staff veterinarian observes any undefined “concerning conditions” that need evaluation.

Although no one on the ACC staff specializes in exotic animals, Wolsiffer says their veterinarian has received “extensive training and experience to include a wide variety of species” and that they have undisclosed “resources and individuals” they can call on for a more “species-specific expert opinion.”

Cracked toenails and moving gait are among the things they check elephants for, but when it comes to tuberculosis, ACC defers to the Marion County Health Department. That group screened the 327 circus workers after one was placed under observation for TB in Chicago, where the circus completed a 10-day performance schedule on Nov. 29. Two tested positive.

It isn’t known whether they tested any of the animals; calls to the Health Department were not returned.

Tuberculosis spreads through the air from person to person — or animal — and can be fatal if not treated. In 2011, an elephant at a sanctuary in Tennessee infected eight people who worked there. Symptoms include a bad cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, fever and night sweats.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, between 1994 and 2010, approximately 13 percent of the nation’s elephant population had confirmed TB. Roughly 18 percent of Asian elephants (the kind typically used in circuses) had TB.

The power of protest

Asian elephants have been a symbol of Ringling Brothers and a popular draw for audiences. Feld executives have testified that the elephants generate more than $100 million annually.

But Robertson believes circus attendance is dropping, along with support from local businesses, predominantly because “most people have compassion and would never want to see an animal suffer,” she believes. “Once they are informed, they make different choices, like not going to the circus [or] not eating animals.”

Although some people who have been informed promise never to attend another animal circus, others still go. “I would say they have not yet comprehended the information,” Robertson says.

Thus, she will continue to protest. “No one is trying to shame or attack circus attendees for going to the circus,” she clarifies. Her mission is to educate the public about what goes on during animal training so they can decide for themselves if they really want to be entertained in this way.

After the protest, Robertson returns to a warm, comfortable home and her family, knowing that the animals will not be going home to theirs. It’s the most difficult aspect for her, knowing that the animals will be loaded back onto trucks and boxcars, shackled and caged, to go to the next city to do it all over again … until dedicated protestors like her make a big enough impact to stop it.