Protesters call for circus elephant release, as Ringling Bros. opens in Richmond

Protesters call for circus elephant release, as Ringling Bros. opens in Richmond

As elephants take the center ring at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus in Richmond, protesters are lining the streets around the Coliseum, calling for their release. The demonstration comes as the circus just announced the show will phase out elephants by 2018.

Stephen Payne, a representative for the circus, says the show chose not to battle a nationwide push for local laws that would make it harder for elephants to perform, like banning certain training tools and practices within city limits. Regardless of the circus's decision to remove elephants, protesters say waiting until 2018 is too long.

The group Richmond Friends of Animals is pushing Ringling Brothers to take the spotlight off all its show animals, immediately.

"It's three more years of being beat," said protester Thomas McNulty.

Richmond is one of multiple cities across the nation considering local laws to ban bullhooks, and other tools used to train show animals. Some animal rights advocates say elephants continue to be abused into performing tricks.

"They use bullhooks, electric prods, chains, whips, all kinds of punishment to force these animals to perform," said Laura Cascada, protesting with the Richmond Friends of Animals group.

"The animals are schlepped through the country in all weather extremes, so me standing out here in the rain is nothing compared to what they go through," added McNulty.

NBC12 went backstage to visit the elephants and their trainer, Joey Frisco.

"Working with an elephant takes anywhere from 75 to 80 percent verbal command. The other 15 to 20 percent is to reinforce with the guide of the bullhook," said Frisco. "We know we take care of the elephants. The public always speaks its mind by how many amounts of people come and see the show."

Payne says circus ticket sales have been steady for years.

A vote on the bullhook ban proposal in Richmond has been pushed back several times so far.

Copyright 2015 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved