A California-based animal welfare group is protesting the Texas Renaissance Festival's elephant rides, citing alleged past evidence of abuse by one of the elephants' handlers.
Animal Defenders International plans to have local volunteers "educate the public with leaflets" Saturday at the festival, located in Todd Mission, about 50 miles northwest of Houston.
Travis Bryant, the festival's marketing director, denied the allegations in statement to the Houston Press, stating "Our elephants have a pleasant demeanor and enjoy the company of people. They are ridden or simply available for photographs with patrons. They, along with all animals at the Texas Renaissance Festival, are treated with utmost respect and cared for by the vendors to whom they belong and are monitored by the Texas Renaissance Festival staff daily. In a recent inspection by the USDA, it was determined that the elephants and their handler are in total compliance with all USDA Animal Care regulations."
The festival's elephants are provided by the Conroe-based Trunks and Humps, which transports the animals to festivals around the country. The company is owned by Bill Swain and employs Swain's son Mike, who ADI says can be seen abusing an elephant at the Bailey Brothers Circus in undercover video footage from 2004. The video shows a man kick an elephant named Krissy in the head, and using a bullhook — a rod with a sharp hook on one end — to hit the 20-year-old elephant and force her to her knees. The man also uses a stun-gun on the animal.
The footage has been widely circulated since 2008, when it was part of ADI's "Stop Circus Suffering" campaign. Bryant told the Press that "We have reviewed the video you sent us and do not believe that the trainer shown is Michael Swain. We have contacted Mr. Swain and he has said that the person in the video is not him." (As far as we can tell, this is the first time in seven years that Mike Swain has ever denied that he's the man in the video).
To be clear, ADI has no evidence of elephants being abused at the Texas Renaissance Festival, but is concerned that Mike Swain's alleged past abuse is still occurring.
Here's how ADI says Mike Swain treated Krissy and a 35-year-old elephant named Boo, during its two-month investigation during a Bailey Brothers Circus tour in 2004:
During the day, the elephants lived in a small electric fenced enclosure and at night (from about 9.30pm) were chained inside the trailer. Typically, they were unshackled and let out of their semi/trailer about mid-morning, after spending the night for about 13 hours chained with no water. Mid-afternoon they would be prepared for elephant rides and then the show. The elephants were chained at least 54% of the time. Whenever Mike Swain left the site or was inside his trailer (usually every day for two to four hours), Krissy would be chained to the semi by a leg due to her repeated attempts to escape. This chain was only 2½ feet long, severely restricting her movements.
When the trailer door was not secured properly during the day she would bang on it with her trunk. Krissy often threw objects (hay, stones, feces, dirt, rubber dishes) at people, both circus workers and members of the public. She would often eat rubbish found in her enclosure, such as plastic and paper bags. When fed by the public she would snatch the plastic/paper bag containing the food and eat everything. Krissy frequently tried to escape, even dismantling the electric fence on several occasions (Swain thought she was becoming accustomed to the electric shock). She threw hay, grass and stones at people and had a reputation for aggression, cornering and pushing circus workers.
According to the report, "ADI presented our evidence to the USDA, but we were told in April 2009 that they would not be taking further action because Swain had told them that he did not currently own any elephants, nor was he currently handling any."
However, it appears that Mike Swain resumed his elephant duties by 2013: ADI sent the Press photos of Bill and Mike Swain with their elephants at festivals in Waxahachie, Texas, and Larkspur, Colorado.
In 1999, Mike Swain was one of a handful of exotic animal exhibitors opposing a Texas House bill that called for local government (in addition to the USDA) to have jurisdiction over the animals' health and welfare. This included minimum space requirements, as well as mandating local registration and $100,000 of liability insurance. (Elephants were ultimately excluded from the bill).
Bill Swain told the Press that the man in the video is not his son. He also said he'd never heard of Bailey Brothers Circus. However, a 2004 article from the Brownsville Herald details the Bailey Brothers Circus coming to town, and quotes an elephant handler named Mike Swain.
Similarly, a 2008 article in the Anchorage Daily News included a photo of a man identified as Mike Swain working at a circus called Bailey Brothers. (The pic is available on Getty Images, a photo provider for the media).
"I just want to make it clear that he wasn't in Anchorage in '08 because I remember that's the year his son was born," Bill Swain said. (He explained that Mike Swain does not work at the festival full-time and just helps out with the elephants when he has time).
We should also note that the Swains have an ally in Daryl Hoffman, The Houston Zoo's curator of large mammals. Bryant (the festival's marketing guy) shared with us an email that Hoffman sent Bill Swain in August. It states:
I can only imagine that you receive many emails and letters concerning the elephants at the fair. The Animal extremists have a very loud voice about their take on elephants in human care. Much of their letters and comments are often filled with false accusations and misleading and misrepresented facts. If you have any questions regarding elephants in the future please feel free to call or email me and I will happily give you my expert opinion on these matters.
We also spoke with Hoffman, who vouched for the elephants' well-being. He also said he was familiar with the video footage of the man identified as Mike Swain, and said, "To bring up something that happened ten years ago and say people are still the same or what they're doing is the same as they did in this video, when they haven't been to the RenFair...you can make your own conclusions to that. I go to the RenFair, I've been to [the Swains'] farm, I've been to where they go, I've seen the elephants. I've seen elephants all over the world."
He added, "I'm not just...someone that watches stuff on the internet and makes comments about it, this is my life. [The Swains] do a really good job. They're dedicated to those elephants. They live with them 24 hours a day, they give them immaculate care."
Of the video, Hoffman says, "It's pieced together, it's not a continuous video, you don't know what happened before or after or what led up to the scenes in the video....If someone a video of me when I was young, not wearing a seatbelt, they'd say my parents are cruel, but it's 20 years ago, I didn't have to wear a seatbelt."
We're guessing people would say his parents were cruel if there was video of them kicking him in the head, which is what the man does at the start of that video. But Hoffman's right — we don't see what happened to cause the guy to kick the elephant in the head. We don't see what happened after he digs the hook into the elephant's neck and forces her to the ground. We wonder what else we never get to see.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.