Circus Tricks

UniverSoul Circus returns to Dallas with elephants that were banned

UniverSoul Circus returns to Dallas with elephants that were banned

Circus elephants are in town. Photo courtesy of In Defense of Elephants

A circus whose animal menagerie has been banned in the past from entering Dallas is back in town with the same animals in tow.

UniverSoul Circus, one of the few remaining circuses in the country to still use animals as part its act, has set up camp at the Southwest Center Mall with its big red tent, human performers — and a number of animals including camels and elephants.

UniverSoul's two elephants are Betty and Bo, the same elephants that in 2015 were prohibited by the Dallas County Health and Human Services department from entering Dallas due to the fact that the elephants have been exposed to the tuberculosis virus, which is extremely contagious.

Would an elephant deemed unsafe in 2015 be safe now without proof that they've been treated?

Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to ascertain, says Rachel Matthews, deputy director at the PETA Foundation.

"In 2015, when PETA convinced Dallas Health and Human Services to bar UniverSoul from using two elephants in its shows because blood tests revealed that they were likely carrying tuberculosis (TB), it was able to provide the agency with blood test results that were current as of December 2014," Matthews says.

"Since then, the federal government has stopped requiring any TB testing or treatment of elephants — which means that many exhibitors stopped using blood tests as an early TB detection tool, and testing information isn’t publicly accessible," she says. "Having access to current results from the full range of TB diagnostics — which were all formerly required — is critical to protecting animal and human health, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cut off that access."

UniverSoul, which "leases" its elephants from other companies, many with documented histories of animal abuse and neglect such as Mitch Kalmanson and Larry Carden, did not respond to inquiries on the status of its elephants. These days, the circus does not feature elephants on its website or advertise that it's bringing in elephants at all.

When asked about the status of the elephants, Dallas County Health and Human Services' interim director Ganesh Shivaramaiyer bounced the inquiry to the city.

"Dallas County Health and Human Services will defer to the City of Dallas veterinarian's opinion in regards to the participation of animals with the UniverSoul Circus in Dallas," Shivaramaiyer said in an email. "All questions regarding the participation of animals in the UniverSoul Circus will be referred to the City of Dallas."

The official city of Dallas veterinarian, it turns out, is Christopher Bonar, senior director of animal health at the Dallas Zoo.

Bonar did not respond to inquiries.

Bonar was the vet in charge who oversaw the controversial importation of juvenile elephants taken from Swaziland to be bred in the United States. He was previously the vet at the Dallas Aquarium, noted for its controversial menagerie and "clearly miserable" animals.

In the past, states such as New York and Michigan have imposed similar bans against UniverSoul, including one by New York City for holding animals in cages too small to allow movement.

UniverSoul has been on the short list for organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for incidents that have potentially endangered the public, such as allowing tigers and zebras to accidentally escape.

A number of protests are planned for the event.

After Dallas' ban in 2015, UniverSoul stayed under the radar, skipping local appearances for a year. But 2018 is the organization's 25th anniversary, which it is using as an opportunity to get back on the road. It'll be at the former Red Bird Mall through July 8.