Shriners Exposed: Reports of Animal Exploitation, Misogyny, and Cultural Appropriation

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3 min read

Shriners International—which has about 200 local chapters across the U.S.—is stuck in the dark ages, with programs and policies that promote animal abuse, are sexist, and have been accused of cultural appropriation.

Numerous cities and states across the U.S. have enacted bans on wild- and exotic-animal shows, and Shrine circuses in Canada now perform without wild-animal acts. However, some Shrine circuses in the U.S. still abuse animals.

About half of the Shriners member chapters in the U.S. still host circuses with live-animal acts, even while Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and other circuses are modernizing with human-only performances. Some well-intentioned people may think that attending Shrine circuses directly benefits children at a Shriners children’s hospital, but the ticket sales actually aren’t charitable donations. Instead, the profits are generally used to maintain the club’s premises and fund its activities.

Animals forced to perform in Shrine circuses live under the constant threat of being hit with bullhooks—weapons that resemble a fireplace poker with a sharp metal hook on one end—and whips. Jay Pratte, an expert on animal behavior, wrote a report exposing that “environmental and physiological neglect, psychological abuse, and coerc[ion of] animals to behave through dominance and fear-based techniques” are standard procedures at the Shrine circuses that he visited.

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Since Shrine circuses don’t possess a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exhibitor license, the animals they use are leased from outside exhibitors with lengthy histories of abuse and legal troubles. Here are some examples:

  • The feds have cited Carson & Barnes Circus for more than 100 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, and a PETA undercover eyewitness caught its head trainer on video attacking elephants and instructing trainers to use bullhooks to make them scream in pain.
  • Disturbing video footage shows two weak, elderly elephants from Carden International Circus struggling to get through a Shrine circus performance.
  • PETA released video footage showing animal handler Brian Franzen at a Shrine circus performance striking an elephant in the jaw with a bullhook. The USDA cited him for forcefully striking another elephant at least five times.

Other Problematic Practices: Shriners Accused of Misogyny and Cultural Appropriation

Shrine chapters don’t allow women to join them—including transgender women, whom Shriners smear in internal documents.

Women who want to participate are often relegated to separate Shrine-affiliated “ladies’ organizations,” which typically require that they be related to a Shriner or a male Mason by birth, marriage, or adoption.

Shriners International doesn’t have genuine ties to the cultures it imitates, and most Shrine chapters have names rooted in racist tropes, such as the Arabia Shriners in Texas, the Mohammed Shriners in Illinois, and the Mecca and Oriental Shriners in New York.

Several Shrine circuses have included an act featuring bison named Chief and Cody in which riders dressed in stereotypical imitations of Native American ceremonial clothing pull on long reins painfully hooked through the animals’ nostrils.

Tell Shriners International It’s Time for an Update: End the Animal Acts!

Companies—including Sherwin-Williams Company, nutrition company DSM, and the world’s largest paint and coatings manufacturer, PPG Industries—are dropping their sponsorships of Shrine circuses. Hundreds of thousands of conscientious people have joined PETA in urging Shriners International to make all its chapters’ fundraisers animal-free.

You can do your part to pressure the organization to stop exploiting animals:

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