BANGOR, Maine — In a time when animal rights protests over elephant and other animal acts have shut down large U.S. circuses, the Anah Shrine Circus has thrived in Bangor and Presque Isle.
“It’s grown the last four years,” Shriner Dennis Hill, local director of the circus for Anah Temple, said of attendance at performances in the two cities.
Last year, the Bangor circus drew about 15,000 spectators over its three-day run, while the Presque Isle edition attracted about 6,000 — up about 3,000 from the previous year between the two venues, Hill said.
“The circus is something we enjoy, the kids enjoy. It’s a lot of fun,” Hill said. “This is our 54th year so I guess we’re doing something right.”
But elsewhere, pressure from animal rights groups caused Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus to eliminate its elephant acts in 2015 and a subsequent drop in ticket sales prompted the so-called Greatest Show on Earth to shut down in January. Similar circumstances put the Big Apple Circus and Cole Bros. Circus out of business last year.
And yet, elephant acts remain part of the circus mix in Maine.
“We’ve got an elephant act, along with an elephant ride. We have a camel act, along with a camel ride, where you actually get to ride a camel, and we have pony rides also. Something for the smaller kids or someone who doesn’t like bigger animals,” Hill said.
The 54th annual Anah Shrine Circus lineup also will offer acts that include The Flying Pages, WooWoo the Clown and the Anah Shrine Clowns, aerial chiffon, aerial ballerinas, chair-balancing acts and Dirt Bike Stunt Devils.
Also appearing will be the Chicago Boyz, an acrobatic team that appeared on the television show “America’s Got Talent” in 2013.
Hill said that Charlie Van Buskirk will return as ringmaster, as he has done almost every year since the Anah Shrine Circus began.
But as the Shrine Circus begins its three-day run in Bangor on Friday, lawmakers in Augusta are looking at proposed legislation that would prohibit elephants from performing in shows in Maine.
LD 396 was the subject of a public hearing in early March that drew speakers on both sides of the issue. It now is being amended before it comes back before legislators for votes.
The Anah Temple Shrine opposes the measure.
“It is a fact that the audience is substantially larger at our circus when the elephants come to perform. It is also our experience that circus goers enjoy seeing the large animal acts,” the organization wrote on its Facebook page as it sought Mainers to oppose the proposed legislation.
“Stopping the elephants from coming to Maine will only harm the Shriners in Maine that depend on the circus to raise money to operate their philanthropy. As this loss trickles down it could affect funding for the Shriners Hospitals that treat children for FREE,” the post said.
Hill said Thursday that the circus is one of Anah Shrine’s largest annual fundraisers, second only to its Feztival of Trees held each November at its facility on outer Broadway.
He declined to say how much the circus raises in a typical year.
“I can’t tell you officially but I think that bill is going to be squashed because there’s more support against it than for it,” he said.
With or without the elephants, however, Hill said he believes that the show will go on.
“The circus would change to more [human] performance type of acts,” he said, citing clowns, trapeze artists and daredevil acts as some examples.
“But people like animals — at least they do in Maine,” he said.