ANNAPOLIS – Christa Beverly is serious about animals – she has been all her life.
So when her husband, Prince George’s Delegation Chairman Rushern L. Baker, D-Prince George’s, cracked jokes about a bill to ban elephants in the circus, she didn’t find it funny.
“Rushern is a very compassionate person,” she said. “He was just not educated. I said, `You need to learn about what they do to the elephants in the circus.'”
Beverly went to work educating Baker, and now he ignores the ridicule and criticism that other – uneducated – lawmakers have for the elephant bill.
“What she said kind of hit me,” Baker said. “She said, `Is this the kind of message you want to send to your children? Is this the kind of world you want them to be a part of?'”
His answer now is no.
Baker is now the primary advocate of the same bill he voted against three years ago on the House Judiciary Committee, which would ban elephants from the circus. He is convinced circuses use cruel tactics to train elephants.
It hasn’t been an easy road for the elephant-banning bill. It was killed early last year and Baker has had trouble rallying co-sponsors and getting other lawmakers to take the issue seriously.
But this year could be different. Rather than killing the bill, delegates amended it. And Baker is not getting as many laughs as before.
His wife supports his continuing fight to protect elephants in the circus. She learned the hard way that animals need freedom.
Beverly once became attached to a sick squirrel she found and tried to keep it as a pet. It died a few days later.
She took home a hurt turtle and nursed it to health. But eventually it died, too.
“I saw that you couldn’t just hug them and love them until they got better,” Beverly said. “My mom would try to tell me you couldn’t keep wild animals cooped up. Wild animals need to be free.”
Beverly feels the same way about elephants. She has a special interest in them since they are the symbol of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. To enter the sorority she had to study a little about elephants and pays more attention to them than the average person.
“There is no redeeming value for these elephants to be brutalized just to do a few tricks,” she said. “The (circus) trains them in a punitive way. It’s not like you are giving them a treat when they do something well. The tools they use hurt.”
Beverly’s opinion is echoed by animal rights advocates who accuse the circus of torturing elephants by poking them with sharp hooks to make them perform. They say the elephants are forced to perform against their will and are liable to rebel and possibly hurt people.
“Elephants go through the breaking process,” said Jane Garrison, an elephant specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “They are restrained with the bull hook to the point where the elephants give up their will to fight back. The circuses are breaking the spirit of the animal.”
Circuses are the target of the bill because their elephants travel a lot and don’t get time to exercise, graze or rest.
“Most of all, their mental and social needs are not being met,” Garrison said. “These are elephants that once knew freedom. And now they can only dream about it.”
For circuses, elephants are the mainstays of the business. Spectators gather in almost every city to see the animals balance plastic balls, march in formation and do other tricks.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus owns 73 Asian elephants. Most of them perform in the 90-city tour that stops in Baltimore for a two-week stay.
Officials from Ringling Bros. say they have trained elephants for nearly 130 years and have the expertise to care for them.
“We provide the highest level of care to our animals, especially the elephants,” said Catherine Ort-Mabry, a circus spokeswoman. “When you get behind the emotional rhetoric and on to the facts, people realize the elephants are well cared for.”
Still Baker believes laws should be drafted to protect elephants. His bill was amended to ban the use of sticks, hooks and whips when handling elephants, rather than ban the use of elephants. It is awaiting a vote by the House Judiciary Committee. His wife says she’ll continue to support the bill no matter what happens.
“He took a lot of abuse in the press for sponsoring the elephant bill,” Beverly said. “But like with most things, Rushern tries to do what’s right.”