The Town Council unanimously voted to allow a circus to operate at the Cumberland Fairgrounds this summer, despite some councilors’ concerns about the way Garden Bros Nuclear Circus allegedly treats its animals.

During the April 11 meeting when the permit was granted for 10 Garden Bros shows June 30-July 3, some councilors brought up the circus’s poor Better Business Bureau rating – 1.75 stars out of a possible five – and its 57 negative reviews out of a total of 75 posted on the BBB website. Eleven of the 75 reviews gave the circus five stars.

Many of the 57 one-star reviews focused on what customers perceived as high prices for food, performers’ “inappropriate attire,” problems getting refunds and other issues, but 15 cited poor treatment of animals, including performers repeatedly cracking whips and scaring the horses, dogs biting their handlers and animals forced to perform in the heat of the summer.

Councilors said that under the town’s mass gathering ordinance, they could not take treatment of animals into account when deciding whether to grant the permit, only the general health and safety of the community.

“(W)hen I was looking at some Better Business Bureau ratings, even how they treated some customers, not just the animals, I will say they’re less than stellar reviews,” Councilor Allison Foster said. “There were some questionable actions by this entity and their business practices.”

“I personally, as a councilor, can’t look at this application and say there’s anything wrong with the application,” Foster said.


Councilor Shirley Storey-King said the BBB rating was also “raised flags” for her and she was concerned about the circus potentially taking advantage of the fairgrounds.

Garden Bros Circus, based in Florida, did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone and email.

The Maine Animal Coalition, a Portland-based group that advocates for the elimination of animal abuse and exploitation, opposes any circuses that use animals in their performances, said President Beth Gallie.

“It is my understanding that Garden Bros Circuses uses horses, ponies, camels and dogs,”  Gallie said. “It cannot possibly be good for horses, ponies and camels to be driven from state to state to perform tricks before audiences day in and day out. Such behavior is not natural behavior for the animals. Most often compliance is achieved by force and intimidation.”

The Garden Bros Nuclear Circus performances include backflipping dogs and a Kids Fun Zone with camel rides and a pony, along with juggling and Olympic gymnasts, according to

Garden Bros. was barred from using animals in their shows last May, in Norfolk, Virginia, after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alerted the city’s Animal Protection Unit about the circus’ plans to do so, according to a PETA press release. A Norfolk city ordinance requires traveling animal exhibits to obtain a permit at least 30 days in advance of the event.


Lyle Merrifield, president of the Cumberland Farmers Club, the nonprofit that owns the fairgrounds and sponsors the annual Cumberland Fair, said there are a “limited number of animals” in the circus performances and that the club was impressed by the organization.

“Certainly the Farmers Club is not going to assist or promote anything like animal cruelty. If something came across wrong to us, we would deal with it immediately,” Merrifield said at the council meeting.

“I’m not promoting this company. They approached us, crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s. They impressed us immediately because we didn’t have to ask for much other material,” he said.

After a discussion between councilors and Merrifield, the council expressed confidence in the club’s judgment.

“If there are larger discussions about what the role of an animal control officer should be, or council should be, in terms of protecting animal rights, we probably need to have that discussion as part of a larger workshop,” Councilor Mark Segrist said.

“Better Business Bureau aside, I can’t see that (Garden Bros Circus) didn’t check the appropriate boxes,” Segrist said.

Councilor Michael Edes said the council’s job is to “approve the permit or not,” and those who don’t approve of the event simply should not attend. Edes also said reviews can be left by anybody and aren’t always a reliable source or information.

The Garden Bros Nuclear Circus will be held from June 30 to July 3, with two, 100-minute performances on Thursday and Friday and three on Saturday and Sunday.

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