Ashley Barnes had taken her children to the Pensacola State Fair for years as part of a home-schooled group.
“During daytime hours when the fair is closed to the general public, the fair offers field trips for school groups. During these field trips, all of the vendors are typically closed, except for the various exhibitors who are there with animals used in agriculture,” she told a federal agency.
But it was not a typical field trip for the Barnes’ family and the group on Oct. 25, 2016, as they witnessed a white tiger show gone awry.
Animal trainers, Vicenta Pages and David Donnert, were involved with whipping a tiger named Ghandi more than 30 times with a meat stick after it attacked Pages, according to a video shot by an audience member, media reports and documents The Gazette received in a records request from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services.
The tiger incident was referenced in one of the inspection reports available online for Circus Pages International. The Myakka City, Fla.-based troupe tentatively plans to perform at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in March.
But Circus Pages has received no violations from APHIS since 2014, including the tiger incident despite the federal agency receiving at least six complaints. Three of the complaint documents could not be distinguished as separate or not because the names were redacted, while the others were from Barnes, the Humane Society of the United States and the PETA Foundation.
Barnes said Pages and Donnert were the only two trainers in charge of the seven or eight tigers. She said Pages had asked Ghandi to jump some hurdles without any meat on the stick.
“The tiger attempted to go around the jump, and Pages dug her knee into his side to push him back toward it. Ghandi wrapped his paw around her leg and pulled her to the ground,” Barnes said.
Throughout the entire incident, she said, three other tigers could have entered the ring if they had wanted.
“Three or four adult tigers were confined to a row of cages so small that they could hardly move around,” she said. “There was a second row of cages that opened into a round presentation arena. Four tigers were inside this arena.”
After Donnert entered the ring to stop Ghandi’s attack, Barnes and her children looked away.
“I was terrified that Pages was going to be fatally mauled in front of my family. I was also afraid that one of the tigers might escape and injure one of us,” she said.
Rachel Matthews, associate director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA, described the attack in a letter to the agency. She said Pages whipped Ghandi about 10 times in the face and Donnert whipped the animal about 23 times. She noted that Donnert appeared to have left the gate unlocked as he entered to assist Pages.
Lisa Wathne, the manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society, informed the agency that the trainers told a different story to the media before the video surfaced.
“Please investigate this incident and pursue strict enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act,” she said.
But APHIS found no non-compliant items following its inspection. Results were summarized in a lengthy paragraph by veterinary medical officer Annette Chapman, who handled the inspection.
She said Ghandi, “a rusty-yellow tiger,” was used for the demonstration instead of a white Siberian tiger because it refused.
She said the enclosure’s door was still open after the second trainer entered, which caused Ghandi to display signs of possession by dragging Pages. After being hit, Ghandi eventually released Pages and exited the enclosure.
“The tigers in this act are highly trained animals that have been conditioned to remain within their enclosure until commanded to exit,” Chapman said. “The public was not harmed and the tigers were contained. There was minimal force used to persuade the tiger to release the trainer. While observing the tiger a day after the incident there was no evidence or signs that the tiger had been injured or in any discomfort.”
Yolanda Earhart, a bookkeeper for Circus Pages, told the Gazette last month that Circus Pages is branched out from a family of four generations, all of which operate independently but use Circus Pages’ name.
The troupe that wants to perform in Delaware is not the “same organization” that owns the tiger act from the incident, she said in an email. Vicenta Pages is the daughter of the their animal trainer, Jorge Pages.
“It was an unfortunate accident that can happen to any trainer who is putting their life in the trust of the animals they are working with,” Earhart said. “After the incident she returned to her father’s home and family environment for the support that only a family can give.”
Delaware City Council had canceled the troupe’s performance last year because a permit was not filed timely. Some residents had also protested against the performance because of animal abuse allegations.
The city’s permit process for circuses was last updated in 1976. City Council’s pending legislation to update the process would prohibit circuses from bringing exotic animals and allow Council to deny circuses requests for permission to perform depending on the number of violations with either APHIS or local animal control authorities.
Council included those provisions after a handful of residents and out-of-town advocates voiced their support for them at a public hearing last month.
Safety concerns and society’s changing perception of using animals as entertainment were among the reasons Council included the exotic animal ban.
If approved, Delaware would become the first Ohio community to have such a ban.
But former and current fairground officials have said they never witnessed any animal abuse from Circus Pages and that the circus was a cheaper option to see exotic animals compared with zoos.
Fair manager Sandy Kuhn said it has not heard back from the troupe. No contract has been signed and no deposit has been made to rent the coliseum at the fairgrounds.
In addition, City Council has other pending legislation to update codified ordinance section 505.23, which defines exotic animals but now exempts circuses. A public hearing was scheduled at City Hall, 1 S. Sandusky St., 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27.
At the Feb. 13 meeting, City Attorney Darren Shulman said more tweaks may come for both pieces of legislation based on feedback from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Zoological Association of America to ensure the pending legislation would not prohibit accredited zoos to bring exotic animals to the city.
“Everything should be accomplished by then,” he said. “… The intention would be the amendment on the wild exotic animal ordinance and then we could vote on everything at that time if Council is inclined to do so.”
Gazette reporter Brandon Klein can be reached by email or on Twitter at @brandoneklein.