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The Great Debate

Gael Murphy vehemently believes animals shouldn’t be used in circuses. And along with Florida Voices for Animals and Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she wants the public to know.

The two groups stood on the corner of Morgan Street and Channelside Drive Saturday in front of the Ice Palace, armed with flyers, homemade pamphlets and stickers to hand out to patrons on their way to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The overall goal was to get their information out.

“Those who read the information will understand why we’re here,” said Murphy, education coordinator for FVA. “It’s time we stop the exploitation of exotic, beautiful animals.”

For years, a number of animal rights groups have claimed circus employees abuse animals. But on Dec. 21, 2001, Mark Oliver Gebel, an animal trainer for Ringling Bros., was on trial in California for the mistreatment of elephants. It took the jury two hours to acquit Gebel, which fueled animal rights activists who said they had documented evidence of the abuse. According to the Ringling Bros. Web site, the case was seen as a victory. Kenneth Feld, producer for Ringling Bros., said the case was “an orchestrated campaign by a group of extremists.”

But through the ethical battle of animals performing, the public remains the ultimate decision maker of whether the show will go on. On Saturday, some took the flyers, others took them and glanced at the material, and still some read the information and threw the flyers in the trashcan at the corner. One man said he didn’t want one because he didn’t want to litter.

Donna Gregory and her family were heading to the circus, and she took a flyer, saying she would probably look at the information, but it wouldn’t stop her from attending the show.

“My sister is big into not going to the circus,” Gregory said. “It’s a hard balance.”

But whatever the reaction, the protesters stood rigid and strong, smiling at the passers-by, even if they didn’t take the information. In previous years, FVA has held signs while protesting. Last year, Murphy rented costumes of a ringmaster and animals and whipped them during the protest. This year, the group decided to only hand out flyers and talk to the people who wanted to talk to them.

“There’s a difference between when we hand out pamphlets and also have signs,” Murphy said. “I think people are nervous about the signs. But the goal is exactly the same – to free animals from circuses.”

Senior Stacy De-Lin said this was her first protest against the Ringling Bros. circus, but the overall response was positive.

“I think we have a good impact,” De-Lin said. “We’re just giving out pure facts, pure information.”

But according to Melinda Rosser, public relations director for Ringling Bros., these groups have incorrect information.

“No one has ever been hurt at any of our shows,” Rosser said. She also noted that a group of flyers the protesters were passing out said the elephants were in an “African slave trade,” but Rosser said the Ringling elephants are from Asia, and some performing are 30-50 years old.

“They’re not pulled out of the wild,” Rosser said.

She said the elephants are bred at the Center for Animal Conservation in Polk County, and not all are used for entertainment purposes. Only the elephants who show indications of talent, such as naturally standing on their heads, are chosen to be trained for the circus, she said.

But animal rights groups insist the animals are kept in inhumane conditions, many of them living with tuberculosis, and say a number of former trainers have come forth alleging to the abuse of animals.

Senior Lea Banks, a SETA member, said the reaction from people was generally positive throughout the day, and no one had been scowling or saying much to them. Banks planned to read an eight-page list of United States Department of Agriculture citations aloud later in the day, but said she thought the message would be far-reaching.

“They’re going to tell their family and friends,” Banks said. “This probably has a bigger impact than we realize.”

In addition to flyers, a list of the elephants, some of which were performing in that day’s show, was distributed. Banks was handing them to people saying, “meet the elephants.”

Rosser said she hasn’t seen many protesters at performances and said the people don’t want their children being handed the material which was being passed out, noting the 3:30 p.m. show was a “full-house.”

“They see it as being anti-American,” Rosser said. Tom Rider, a former employee for the Ringling Bros. circus, reported to the Committee on the Judiciary on June 13, 2000 that abuse of the animals does occur.

“While I worked for Ringling Bros., I heard stories all the time about dangerous elephants and how they could kill you if you got too close,” Rider said in the report. “After my three years working with elephants in the circus, I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they don’t perform properly.”

Also, the USDA has cited Ringling Bros. at a number of incidents. Among the USDA inspection reports are violations of improper caging of the animals, vent failure, animals being infected with tuberculosis without receiving treatment and food storage violations. One violation also notes elephants having “minor lesions, scars or abrasions.”

Rosser said the circus is inspected by local, state and federal authorities in every city they perform in and without notice. She said the food violations were simply a matter of covering up the feed and hay.

“It’s the same typical citation as when you go into a restaurant,” Rosser said. “Any restaurant you go to has been cited for the same violation.”

Rosser also said the animals are trained by positive-reinforcement, and they are given treats, such a carrots, when they do tricks. Nearby, one circus employee was hand-cutting oversized carrots to feed to the goats.

“They’re not putting them (the carrots) through a slicer and dicer,” Rosser said. “They are cut by love and by hand.”

As the Ringling Bros. circus began at 3:30 p.m., FVA and SETA said they were pleased with their work. SETA planned to also attend Sunday’s shows. Murphy said although the people didn’t have much time to read the flyers while crossing the street, she hoped the information would sink in later.

“They may see something – they will see something – that may disturb some of them,” Murphy said.

Despite the protesting, the Ringling Bros. circus is now entering its 132nd year, Rosser said, and it appears it will be around for many more years.

“It’s a great American tradition,” Rosser said. “It’s the longest-running family entertainment show in history.”But animal rights protesters promise to relentlessly pursue the circus and will continue attempting to give their information to the public.

“It’s a tradition we should be ashamed of,” Murphy said. “Circuses are great, but only circuses without animals.”

  • Contact Lindsay Fosterat oraclefeatures@yahoo.com