VIENNA, VA: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has named zoo expert Bruce Read as its first VP of animal stewardship.
Read replaces the previous director of animal stewardship, John Kirtland, who died at the beginning of the year. Read will report directly to Kenneth Feld, owner and CEO of the circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment.
The circus has been immersed in public battles with animal-rights groups recently, with a Ringling legal victory in Denver and another lawsuit still pending.
The hiring wasn't an implicit PR move, but rather a continuation of Ringling's commitment to animal safety, said Darin Johnson, national PR director.
"The fact that he will implement strong animal management and training programs will show the public the strong commitment," Johnson said. "The proof will be in the pudding."
Johnson said that he hoped Read would set new animal care standards for both circuses and zoos.
In August, 71% of Denver voters defeated Initiative 100, which sought to ban circuses that include animal acts. The initiative went to a vote after animal activist organizations collected the necessary signatures.
Debbie Leahy, director of captive animals and entertainment issues for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in an e-mail, "Ringling's hiring of someone from the zoo community is an attempt to lend legitimacy to the circus. It does not mean much for Ringling; the animals will always be subjected to cruel training methods and extreme confinement inherent [to] life on the road - regardless of who they pay to defend it."
Johnson's response to Leahy's claims is that the circus routinely invites the media and animal rights activists to come to its shows and elephant conservatory to witness how the animals are treated, but the critics rarely take the circus up on that offer.
In November 2003, Feld Entertainment invited 200 media professionals in Chicago for a behind-the-scenes look at the circus to show how it cares for its animals.
"We are trying to actively make media aware that [PETA's charge] is old information being hawked," Mark Riddell, national director of PR at Feld told PRWeek back in November 2003.
In March 2004, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The Fund for Animals, and the Animal Welfare Institute have brought a lawsuit against the circus under the Endangered Species Act for its mistreatment of the elephants an endangered species. The lawsuit is still pending.
A spokesperson for the ASPCA said the organization did not know enough about Read to comment.
Read joins the circus after serving as director of the Birmingham, Alabama Zoo. Under his direction, the zoo restructured its education department and developed a new animal handler curriculum and zoo master plan.
Read also worked at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida.