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Investigation continues into camel chaos at Shrine Circus in Pittsburgh

Bob Bauder
| Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, 2:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh police and Shrine Circus organizers are attempting to find out what caused a camel to buck and charge across the floor of PPG Paints Arena Sunday, injuring six children and an adult.
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Pittsburgh police and Shrine Circus organizers are attempting to find out what caused a camel to buck and charge across the floor of PPG Paints Arena Sunday, injuring six children and an adult.
Pittsburgh police and Shrine Circus organizers are attempting to find out what caused a camel to buck and charge across the floor of PPG Paints Arena Sunday, injuring six children and an adult.
Pittsburgh police and Shrine Circus organizers are attempting to find out what caused a camel to buck and charge across the floor of PPG Paints Arena Sunday, injuring six children and an adult.

Pittsburgh police reviewed video and conducted interviews Monday in an attempt to learn what caused a camel at the Shrine Circus on Sunday to buck and charge across the floor at PPG Paints Arena, injuring six children and one adult.

The company that owns the camel returned it to their Florida headquarters after the mishap, said Gary Desjardins, general manager of PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and circus Chairman Paul Leavy said they were looking into an unconfirmed report that a child threw a shovel at the camel’s feet just before it started bucking. The U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also is investigating, according to a spokesman.

Leavy said he was on the floor at the time, but wasn’t near the camel and declined to speculate on the cause. He said court-ordered animal monitors were also on hand but was unsure of their location during the incident.

The incident occurred during an intermission as the circus was offering $10 rides to spectators. Leavy said all spectators were permitted access to the floor area to participate in animal rides, face painting and a host of other activities geared toward children.

“My concerns are with the children and the adult that were injured,” Leavy said. “This was our 69th year, and this is the first incident ever. We turned it over to the proper authorities for investigation, and we’ll follow that track.”

The injured suffered bumps, bruises and cuts, and one child sustained a broken arm during the 11 seconds it took to bring the animal under control, according to Ron Romano, Pittsburgh’s acting Emergency Medical Services Chief. All were treated at local hospitals and released.

A veterinarian, who was one of the monitors, examined the camel and said it was not injured, according to a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokesman. Desjardins said the circus subcontracts with companies to provide the animals. The camel performed in a show just before intermission and it was not scheduled for another appearance.

Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus of the South Side said the incident reaffirms his belief that council was correct in enacting an ordinance that he sponsored late last year, banning the use of any device that could inflict pain, intimidate or give the impression of inflicting pain for training or controlling wild or exotic animals.

“It’s an unnatural environment for these animals, and I’m not surprised that the camel reacted the way that it did yesterday,” Kraus said, referring to a video that was widely shared following the incident. “Witnessing that video, and I’ve watched it any number of times, it’s clear the animal was just terrified and reacting out of fear.”

Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Hill, a well-known animal lover who opposed the legislation, took a different view of the event. Harris visited the circus last year and rode a camel and an elephant to witness their treatment by the circus. She did not attend the circus over the weekend.

“There was something that startled that animal,” she said. “They never had a problem before, ever.

“The animal wouldn’t have just kicked up like that for no reason at all. There had to be a reason.”

Shriners are challenging the ordinance in Allegheny County Court, calling it unconstitutional and saying it would block the circus from performing in Pittsburgh. Senior Common Pleas Judge Joseph James issued an injunction that suspended the ordinance over the weekend so the circus could honor previously signed contracts for the event.

Circus insurance carriers require the use of tools banned by the ordinance, including bullhooks, according to the lawsuit. The devices are described as a hooked-shaped implement used to control elephants.

Animal rights supporters have described bullhooks as inhumane and say they’ve inflicted serious injury by gouging and causing deep wounds. Humane Action Pittsburgh and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, renewed calls following Sunday’s incident for the Pittsburgh Shriners to stop using live animal acts.

Leavy said the tools are used only to tap and guide animals.

“They’re not used to beat the animals or anything as the activists would like you to believe,” Leavy said. “They’re used to control them if needed. Everybody can see what’s going on. They’re right in their hands at the circus. It’s just a necessary tool.”

Hissrich said Pittsburgh stationed four paramedics at the arena Sunday, two of whom were on the floor when the incident happened. He said the medics and a crew of emergency medical technicians triaged the injured and transported them to the hospital within 30 minutes.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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