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UniverSoul's Tyrone Taylor is one of the industry's few black trainers. He works the elephants in the ring as the Diamond Soul Divas dance on their necks. Schooled under the legendary Gunther-Gebel Williams, Taylor is overshadowed by the elephants, despite his flashy red costume and bullhook. "There's elephants out there who work good, but still it takes a trainer to make them want to do it," Taylor says.
In 1993, while working for Circus America, Taylor refused to work an elephant called Tyke. Instead, he advised that she be placed in a zoo. "That elephant went crazy and ran around a park and hurt someone," Taylor says.
The next year, Tyke rampaged, killing her trainer, Allen Campbell. Police fired 87 bullets before Tyke collapsed in downtown Honolulu. Campbell's autopsy revealed cocaine and alcohol in his system.
"I read, oh yeah, 'Elephant in Hawaii kills,' and I said, 'Tyke.' I knew it. I told them. I told them," Taylor says.
"Tyke had broken away on at least two previous occasions while being exhibited," says a 1996 report from the United States Department of Agriculture. Tyke's owner was ordered to pay a penalty of $12,500.
Former USDA veterinary inspector Dr. Peggy Larson says, "Tyke was way too dangerous to stay in the circus."
Walker says that even though none of UniverSoul's animals have attacked, "Nature guides them. They have emotional reactions. They have bad days and get angry."
The USDA says Carson & Barnes paid "a $400 stipulation for improper handling of animals" last year after PETA turned over its video to officials. Critics, including Larson, say the USDA is not doing its job.
"The problem is that the USDA does not want to shut anyone down," Larson says. "They're not supposed to put anyone out of business." Larson says the nature of the circus business makes it difficult for the USDA to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. "By the time we finish the paperwork, they are in another state."
As for animals that attack, Larson says, "They have no control over preventing an animal from performing based on its history -- however dangerous."
When violations are found, it's the animals' owners who are cited, not the circuses that lease them.
Smith says Carson & Barnes would learn two or three days in advance when the USDA was coming and "clean [its] act up."
"You see all the [USDA] reports on Carson & Barnes, and it's a complete joke, because the reports that they have out there are absolutely nothing compared to what they do," Smith says.
In June, PETA asked the USDA to check on Rocky, a boxing kangaroo traveling with UniverSoul's other circus. On July 8, a USDA investigator inspected Rocky and found that he had a serious infection called lumpy jaw. An August 29 letter from a USDA investigator reported that Rocky was "doing well." He died two days later.
"We take good care of our animals," Walker insists. PETA and other animal-rights groups "point out the extremes," he says. "You can find instances of good and bad people in any business."
"I don't work that way," Taylor says. "It don't have to be that way." Most in the circus industry, including Taylor, say elephants can be trained through positive reinforcement, such as rewarding good behavior with food.
Taylor says he controls his animals vocally. "They're watching me, physical movements. They'll react to my body. That's the kind of trainer I want to be."