The Colorado Renaissance Festival, which takes place on weekends through August 7, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this season — and it remains a summertime favorite in these parts thanks to its beautiful setting in Larkspur, the colorful costumes of cast members and regularly scheduled shows, including ones that give audience members the chance to get up close and personal with wild animals.
But in the wake of high-profile animal-related incidents across the country, including the recent injury to a three-year-old who fell into a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo (the gorilla was shot to death), and an alligator attack at a Disney resort in Florida that took the life of a Nebraska toddler, animal activists say fest features involving elephants and tigers are tragedies waiting to happen, in part because of dubious trainers that put unsuspecting members of the public at risk.
Representatives of the trainers in question — Craig Wagner, the man behind "The Endangered Cat Show," and elephant handler Mike Swain, who gives elephant rides courtesy of the company Trunks & Humps — deny such claims and suggest that their accusers are grossly exaggerating alleged perils to further their agenda of ending all use of animals in festivals, circuses and the like. And so, too, does Jim Paradise, the director of marketing and general overseer of the Colorado Renaissance Festival, which is owned by his family.
"Every year, we have extremists who call and don't like what we do, and there's not much we can do about it," Paradise says. "But I have no concerns about what we're doing, and I'm excited to bring these types of opportunities to people who come to the festival."
Animal Defenders International, an organization that's staged multiple protests at the Colorado Renaissance Festival this season (including one last weekend), is far less pleased about animal attractions like the ones Paradise spotlights.
Among its major campaigns is "Stop Circus Suffering," whose web page notes that it has "seen many successes, including the closure of circuses, rescue of animals and local and national bans. To date, 31 countries have taken measures to prohibit animal circuses!"
ADI prides itself on undercover investigations, and Matt Rossell, the organization's campaigns director, says one example is a video of Mike Swain "viciously attacking an elephant, Chrissy, with electric shocking devices, golf clubs and a bull hook — literally bringing this elephant to her knees and kicking her in the face."
Here's that clip:
Rossell notes that this video was shown to Bill Swain, father of Mike and owner of Trumps & Humps, and "he claimed not to recognize his own elephant or his own son — which is a really lame argument."
Not to Bill. "That video was kind of old, and it looks like one of those hidden-camera deals, where it's hard to see," he tells Westword. Besides, "the guy in the video has a ponytail, and my son is bald."
Beyond the treatment of the elephants, Rossell points out that "these are wild animals — and elephant trainers know better than anyone how potentially dangerous they are, especially when you bring them into these very public situations with hundreds or even thousands of people and no physical barrier that could possibly stop an elephant."
There's also jeopardy when people, including children, ride on the backs of elephants, Rossell maintains — and they do so regularly at the Colorado Renaissance Festival.
The ADI supplies a pair of inspection reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture citing violations in the way Trunks & Humps handled elephants in 2010 and 2011; they're on view below. The first says that "there were no staff between the elephant and two small children that were within one foot of the elephant." The second, which took place at the Colorado Renaissance Festival and involved Chrissy, notes that an "official observed at least two incidences where only one handler was attempting to control two elephants carrying members of the public for rides."
"Bringing in these dangerous exhibits gives a false impression to the public that this is safe," Rossell says. "When you go to a venue, you're trusting that they've vetted this situation. You're trusting that if you're putting your kid on the back of an elephant, you're not really risking his or her life. But there's no amount of planning, no amount of regulations that can prevent a disaster from happening in this situation."
Bill Swain dismisses all of these assertions. He says Mike and other handlers for Trunks & Humps do not physically abuse their elephants and control them entirely by way of verbal commands and the use of a devise he refers to as an ankus. "They call them bull hooks — I don't know where they got that from," Bill says. "But ankuses have been used with elephants for 2,000 years, and they're basically a stick to help give the elephant direction. They're not torture devices."
He adds, "We're in compliance with inspectors, our animals are healthy, my insurance company never balks at covering us, and we've never had a serious accident. There might have been times when somebody dropped a cell phone that got stepped on or maybe someone got their pants-leg hung up on a corner. But there's never been a time when somebody had to take a ride in an ambulance because they took a ride on one of our elephants.
"You've got to realize the goals of these people — and you need to realize the difference between animal rights and animal welfare, because there's no comparison between the two," he goes on. "Our elephants are only at the festival on the weekends, and because we have three of them, no one elephant is out there for very long. And on the weekdays, we've got at least eighty acres for them, and they have all that time for themselves. They're in excellent health, despite what these people would like you to believe."
In the meantime, the tigers and other stars of "The Endangered Cat Show" at the Renaissance festival are the focus of Julie Hanan, a volunteer for Animal ACTion Network in Denver with fifteen years of experience in big-cat rescue. Back in 2011, she says, "a woman who worked at the festival and wanted to remain anonymous sent me a Facebook message about the horrors that were going on there. She had firsthand accounts of the fact that these tigers and leopards and wild cats were just on a chained leash when they're on stage. Her fear was that there were so many children at the festival, and children are seen as prey by big cats. If a child were to run and the trainer was to lose control of the animal, there could be a mauling or death."
Hanan notes that the woman's complaint led to an additional safety measure imposed by USDA inspectors — a wire tether that is secured and fixed to the stage as a backup to the chain leash. However, "neither of us were satisfied with that solution, and we didn't feel that in the interest of public safety this should be going on."
Hanan has spent years trying to get Denver-area media to focus on Wagner and this issue; she believes the amount of advertising dollars and/or sponsorships involving the fest explains why initial interest by reporters hasn't turned into critical coverage. But she tried again after an incident at Wagner's Great Cats World Park in Cave Junction, Oregon. On June 16, a tiger bit a trainer so severely that the woman's arm was broken, prompting an investigation by USDA inspectors.
"That just shows how dangerous this can be," Hanan says.
Traveler Hawk, Wagner's spokesperson, as well as the manager of Great Cats World Park, says the injury suffered by the trainer shouldn't be equated to possible dangers at the Renaissance fest.
"One of our keepers made a mistake and broke protocol," she says. "She ended up with her arm in an enclosure. But the cat was not out, was not being handled, and the public was never in any danger. And her injury was not as serious as it could have been. She will regain the full use of her arm."
Adding a wire tether to the leashes the big cats wear during the Colorado show is an important safety precaution, Hawk believes — but just as important is "an expert handler who understands the cats. And we have a secondary backup handler and two security people at every show. And we also instruct the audience that they need to stay seated and stay still — and additional personnel remind them about that during the show. And even though we'll occasionally have a child melt down and go running through the audience, all of these worst-case scenario plans we have in place allow people to have a nice, relaxing time — and the cats can, too."
In Hawk's view, the latest complaints against Wagner and other animal handlers at the Renaissance fest are stealth attempts to "get rid of these kinds of shows. Every few years, they revise their tactics. They haven't been able to prove animal abuse, so now they're trying to prove public endangerment. But our most recent inspection report came back clean, and the inspector is very happy with the changes we've made to our show. Sometimes we have to work with inspectors to come to an agreement about how to run things safely, and I believe our clean report shows that we have done that."
As for the Colorado Renaissance Festival's Paradise, he acknowledges the aforementioned USDA violations back at the dawn of the decade — but he says, "that was 2010 or 2011, and this is 2016, and we have not had any recent ones." Moreover, he's confident that the elephant rides are absolutely safe and feels the same way about the big-cats show. "I had my family in the front row last weekend," he allows.
"I get petitions and e-mails, people writing me from every country in the world with complaints, even though they've never been to our show," he continues. "I'm not brushing this off. But we've owned this company for twenty years and we've had zero incidents — and we have 200,000 people who appreciate what we do and come back year after year. And we hope they keep coming back."
Hanan rejects this pitch."These shows are dangerous, and I have to speak out," she says. "I don't want it on my head in case something terrible happens."
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Look below to see the aforementioned USDA reports about Trunks & Humps.