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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, August 20, 2004

Slain elephant left tenuous legacy in animal rights

 •  1933 attack cost life of beloved zoo star

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Throughout the 20th century, the traditional American circus was an essential component on the Honolulu entertainment landscape — sawdust extravaganzas staged for decades by Island amusement impresario E.K. Fernandez and sponsored by such organizations as the Shriners, Lions and Honolulu Jaycees.

On Aug. 20, 1994, Tyke ran amok in the streets of Kaka'ako after mauling her groomer and killing her circus trainer in Blaisdell Arena.

Advertiser Library photo

In addition to clowns, jugglers and aerial acrobats, these popular events required exotic animal acts, particularly pachyderms. No circus was considered complete without elephants.

Then, on Aug. 20, 1994 — the last day the circus came to town — Honolulu's whole big top tradition folded up and went away.

Reasons cited by the city include the jumbo costs of bringing a circus to town, inability to tie up Honolulu's only major arena for extended periods, and the complicated quarantine and care requirements.

But the primary reason that Honolulu has probably seen its last circus can be summed up in one word:


Ten years ago today, in front of hundreds of horrified Circus International spectators, Tyke, a full-grown female African elephant, mauled her groomer, Dallas Beckwith, trampled and killed her trainer, Allen Campbell, and then bolted from Blaisdell Arena onto the streets of Kaka'ako.

There the animal ran wild for a half-hour, nearly killing another man, before she was finally brought down by Honolulu police who riddled her with bullets from high-powered rifles.

In the aftermath, Tyke became the poster elephant of circus tragedies and a symbol for animal rights. Dozens of lawsuits were filed against the city, the state, the circus and Tyke's owner, John Cuneo Jr. and his Hawthorn Corp. The suits were settled out of court, the last of them only last year, but the amounts were never made public.

No traditional circus has applied for a city permit since the Tyke incident, but officials are now reluctant to issue permits that include exotic animals anyway.

"You're taking about a city that is extremely leery about allowing anything along those lines back at Blaisdell Arena anymore," said city spokeswoman Carol Costa.

Costa said it didn't mean the state couldn't grant a circus permit, but so far it has not done so.

Others insist that simply because no circus elephants have been here in a decade doesn't mean a tragedy similar to the Tyke disaster could not happen again.

"Of course it could happen if a traditional circus does came in — and they still can because we haven't done anything legally to stop them," said Cathy Goeggel, director of Animal Rights Hawaii.

Goeggel points to four failed bills to ban exotic animal acts in Hawai'i.

"We tried twice in the Honolulu City Council and twice in the Hawai'i Legislature," she said. "None of those bills passed.

"What the industry is trying to do is wait until people's memories fade."

Tyler Ralston agrees. Ten years ago he was driving along Waimanu Street in Kaka'ako and was stunned to see a circus elephant charging toward his car.

"Initially, I was confused," recalled Ralston, who was 26 at the time. "The elephant was coming at me and the police were behind it. I saw this headdress on the elephant, and I thought there must have been a circus in town and the elephant got away."

Instinctively, Ralston swerved onto Cummins Street, whipping his car into a motorcycle shop. In the next moments he witnessed a surreal, horrifying scene as Tyke chased a circus clown through a vacant lot while circus promoter Steve Hirano attempted to confine the animal within the lot.

"Hirano was trying to close the fence and the elephant charged at him, busted through, soccer-balled him on the ground and hit him, shattering his leg — and that's when the first shots were fired.

"That's when I was, like, 'OK, this is really serious. There's a lot of people around and I don't want to see an elephant get killed.' And the next thing I knew, it was running by me, bloody."

It all changed his life, Ralston said. He tried to have bills passed banning animal acts and continues to advocate bringing in and promoting animal-free circuses such as Cirque du Soleil.

One person who firmly believes that the traditional circus should come back to Honolulu is the wife of the publicist who came close to being killed by Tyke.

"Steve and I continued to say if everything is done well — and many of these circus and animal shows do take wonderful care of their animals — that the children should have a right to view them, especially in Hawai'i, which is isolated," said Amy Hayashi Hirano, whose husband eventually recovered from the attack and died of cancer last year.

Whether grief-filled memories are enough to permanently eliminate traditional circuses in Honolulu remains to be seen. But there's no doubt Tyke has altered the animal entertainment outlook here and elsewhere.

The Hawaiian Humane Society has formulated an official position stating that "wild animal acts should not be used in entertainment such as circuses, shows and exhibits."

And last March, the federal government took away 16 circus elephants from an owner accused of mistreating his animals.

That owner was John Cuneo Jr. — the man who owned Tyke.

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.