On September 22nd, I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts to attend the “Big E”, with my son, James in order to complete an assignment for my Animal Protection course. The “Big E” is New England’s "greatest state fair” (Wikipedia, "The Eastern States Exposition", 2018). We arrived at 11:30am and left at 4:00pm. It was a very hot day and the sun was beating down. This was my first time going to this fair but I had an idea of what I should expect. I at first found the experience challenging, but when I put myself in the position of an undercover investigator, it made the situation a little easier to handle.
Before arriving, I had made a list of the animal exhibits that I wanted to view along with the show times. We first made our way to the “Swifty Swine Racing Pigs” show. Here, pigs are housed in a trailer, advertised as “air conditioned for piggy comfort.” As the presenter begins the show, you can hear pigs squealing from the trailer. There was a total of three races during the show. When called upon, four potbelly pigs are loaded into holding gates for the race. They raced around the track for an Oreo. The names of the pigs ranged from “Brittany Spareribs” to “Kim Kardashiham” to “Kevin Bacon.” The finale of the show was with “Swifty” the swimming pig. This 12-week-old pig’s act is to swim an 8ft long tank of water. After the show, the pigs were put back into the trailer and into their crates. There are souvenirs available such as Swifty pig noses and an opportunity to get souvenir photos of you and your family holding Swifty. The show operates every day that the fair is operating (17 days), and 5 times a day (Johnson, "Swifty Swine Racing Pigs", 2018).
The next stop was to the R. W. COMMERFORD & SONS animal attraction. This 40 year old company is located in Goshen, Connecticut. Their website proclaims that they work hard to give their animals a nice home and that the animals are well taken care of (R. W. Commerford & Sons, "Our Animal Friends", n.d).
The attraction at the “Big E” included a petting zoo as well as pony and elephant rides. This exhibit was the most distressing for me. Minnie, an elephant, was on display. She looked exhausted. Her eyes appeared sunken in, her skin looked incredibly dry and cracked and her mood seemed to be despondent as she walked around in circles giving rides to customers. The ride lasted around 1:30 minutes per group. The next rider(s) would immediately get on and Minnie would go around in a circle again. There was no rest for Minnie during the time I observed her, which was for more than half an hour. The handler had a bull hook with him, which he held conspicuously at his side and would use it to guide Minnie if she wasn’t going where he wanted her to go ("R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction", 2018).
I then went over to R. W. Commerford & Sons’ petting zoo. There was a zebra in the center of the tent. It was held inside a small enclosure which was surrounded by the pygmy goats and Barbados sheep. The Zebra stood in one place and did not move or look around. Most would probably not even notice that the Zebra wasn’t interacting because they were too distracted at all of the goats trying to jump out of their enclosure to get food from the guests. Along the side of the tent were four Shetland ponies that were chained up to the railing. Inside of a cage, which you could barely see inside because there was a grate over it, was a Greenwing MaCaw. I didn’t see any sunlight getting into the cage. This was the same with the African Grey Parrot. There were many other exotic animals at the petting zoo such as the Scimitar-Horned Oryx, originally from the Sahara Desert and the Zebu Steer from India that were also chained to a fence. Like with “The Switfy Swine Pig Racing”, there were opportunities to buy souvenirs such as photos and cow boy hats ("R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction", 2018).
I spoke to those working the R.W Commerford & Son’s attractions and everyone seemed to hold the party line that all of these animals are happy and well looked after ("R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction", 2018). The workers themselves looked miserable. I don’t believe that many of employees really want to be doing this. They too are a victim of oppression, whether that be down to their race, income level or class. Just like when the poor white man was pitted against the poor black man in order to keep the institution of oppression functioning, this same system is pitting these employees against the animals in order to prop up upper classes.
When I exited the fair, I encountered a group of animal activists that were asking for those that walked by, to consider what their ticket was paying for. I spoke to Sheryl Becker, the director of the Western Massachusetts Animal Rights Advocates group. She lead me to a PETA report showing that R.W. Commerford & Sons has had over 56 citations of not meeting federal standard of care for animals used in exhibition; based on the Animal Welfare Act (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
The Nonhuman Rights Project reports, violations that pertain to the elephants in the care of R. W. Commerford & Sons alone include, “failure to have an employee or attendant present during periods of public contact with the elephants; failure to give adequate veterinary care to treat an excessive accumulation of necrotic skin on the elephants’ heads; failure to maintain the elephant transport trailer; inadequate drainage in the elephant enclosure; failure to dispose of a large accumulation of soiled hay, bedding, and feces behind the elephant barn; and failure to keep an elephant under the control of a handler while she was giving rides” (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie", n.d). When I explained that the elephant giving rides on that particular day was Minnie, Becker was shocked and concerned. Peta has reported that Minnie has been involved in three separate incidences of dangerous behavior (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
The first reported incident occurred in 1989 when Minnie attacked and critically injured an elephant handler. This occurred when the handler struck Minnie with a bullhook while two children were riding on her back. She had picked the handler up with her trunk and threw him against a trailer. This broke the handler’s jaw and shoulder. Years before this happened, Minnie had attacked a worker and broke his arm (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
In 1998, Minnie knocked down her trainer and stepped on him. Again, she had children on her back. One of the children fell off of Minnie and hit her head (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
On March 5th, 2006, Minnie became agitated and swung her head toward two employees. She used her weight to pin them against the loading ramp. A witness confirmed that Minnie’s action was a result of her being provoked by one of the employees hitting her in the face (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d). This makes me think that this could become another Sea World Tilikum situation (BBC, "SeaWorld orca Tilikum that killed trainer dies", 2017).
When I got home, I saw a post by the Nonhuman rights project and couldn’t believe that Minnie, along with the other two elephants owned by the Commerford’s, Beulah and Karen were clients of Steven Wise (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie", n.d). The Nonhuman Rights organization had been at the Big E at the same time as when I was there doing my assignment.
According to the Nonhuman Rights organization, Minnie was born in the wild in Thailand. She was imported to the United States in 1972 when she was two months old. Practically since birth, she has been on display. She has been in petting zoos, used for sales promotions, in Indian weddings, films, circuses and photo shoots. Minnie was sold to the Commerford’s in 1976. At the age of 46, Minnie has lived a life that has been nothing short of abuse and exploitation (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie", n.d).
Within the space of just a day or two, a photo of Minnie went viral. There have been petitions to stop the exploitation of the elephants in Commerford’s care and more activists showing up to protest. Just two days after I visited the “Big E”, Steven Wise was on a Western Massachusetts news station, WGGB/WSHM, advocating for Minnie’s release to a sanctuary (Sleem & Masse, 2018). This has been a catalyst of dozens of news articles covering the case and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. There is currently a change.org calling to “End the Use of Wild Animal Acts at The Big E!” There are currently 127,070 signatures as of October 31st (Change.org, n.d).
The current litigation case with Beulah, Karen and Minnie’s is still ongoing. In December 2017, the first petition was refused with Judge James Bentivegna proclaiming that the case was “frivolous on its face as a matter of law.” On June 11th, 2018, a second petition was filed on behalf of the elephants in Connecticut. (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Second Petition Filed on Behalf of Captive Elephants in Connecticut", 2018).
If the case is won, the elephants would be welcomed to the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) Sanctuary to live out their lives (PAWS, n.d).
This assignment has taken me into an entirely different direction than I had anticipated. It has allowed me to feel like I was part of something bigger. I was able to bear witness to the life of entertainment animals such as Minnie, who have had to endure more than any animal should. Although I left the “Big E” feeling angry, I now feel empowered. I am able to see how so many groups of people are going at great lengths to speak up for the animals; either through protests, petitions, advocacy or legal work. Through the use of social media, Minnie’s story has been shared thousands of times, further opening the hearts and minds of those around the world. I look forward to following Stephen Wises’ case for my friend, Minnie.
Below are some additional photos and videos that I took during my experience at the "Big E". The way we exploit animals is never ending. I ask one thing of you, please look into their eyes.
How Can You Help?
1.) Vote with your dollar. Don't attend venues or events that promote or participate in animal exploitation & animal entertainment. This will signal to places that we want change.
2.) Get involved with organizations such as the Nonhuman Rights Project who are trying to help Minnie, along with many other animals and fighting for their release.
3.) Attend an animal advocacy event. It may feel scary at first but I promise you will never feel more alive and empowered to use your voice!
4.) Write to The Big E at info@TheBigE.com and tell them to stop this action.
5.) Sign the change.org petition, "End the Use of Wild Animal Acts at The Big E!"
6.) Share Minnie's story and all of the other animals that are exploited at the "Big E" as far and wide as you can! The more people know about it, the more we can create change.
BBC. (2017, January 06). SeaWorld orca Tilikum that killed trainer dies. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38531967
Change.org. (n.d.). End the Use of Wild Animal Acts at The Big E! Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.change.org/p/eugene-cassidy-president-and-ceo-end-the-use-of-wild-animal-acts-at-the-big-eJohnson, Z. (Director). (2018, September 22).
Swifty Swine Racing Pigs. Live performance in Eastern States Exposition, Springfield.
Nonhuman Rights Project. (n.d.). Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.nonhumanrights.org/clients-beulah-karen-minnie/
Nonhuman Rights Project. (2018, June 11). Second Petition Filed on Behalf of Captive Elephants in Connecticut. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.nonhumanrights.org/blog/second-petition-connecticut/
PAWS. (n.d.). Performing Animal Welfare Society -- PAWS. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from http://www.pawsweb.org/
PETA. (n.d.). R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet [Brochure]. Norfolk, VA: Author.
Sleem, S., & Masse, A. (2018, September 24). Call to end wild animal acts at the Big E after viral Facebook post. Retrieved September 24, 2018, from https://www.westernmassnews.com/news/call-to-end-wild-animal-acts-at-the-big-e/article_e5e6db6e-c066-11e8-b5b3-7f9b485dbdd1.html
R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction. (2018, September 22). Live performance in Eastern States Exposition, Springfield.
R. W. Commerford & Sons. (n.d.). Our Animal Friends. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from http://commerfordzoo.com/animals.php
Wikipedia. (2018, September 22). The Eastern States Exposition. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eastern_States_Exposition