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Protesters descend on circus show

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The Greatest Show on Earth is in town this week, but animal rights activists are encouraging people to skip the circus, saying it does not treat its animals well.

Jan. 05, 2008

As his family stood in the cold, drizzling rain outside American Airlines Arena, waiting to see the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show Friday night, 14-year-old George Fuentes stood transfixed by a protester's DVD.

It showed circus elephants being whipped by trainers. The video was part of an exhibit by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. ''It's horrible what they did. I don't feel like watching the circus anymore,'' said George, who lives in Miami. He came with his sister, Vanessa, and mother, Mary, on the opening night of ''Belloration,'' which runs until Jan. 12.

For the past four years, the foundation has protested outside of Ringling Bros. shows. It is determined to convince people to stop attending the circus. It alleges that Ringling Bros. abuses its elephants and other performing animals -- a charge circus officials steadfastly deny.

''We don't want to see the animals used for entertainment like this. They don't have a choice in what they are told to do,'' said Amanda Burk, a member of the foundation.

She pulled out a bullhook -- a pole about three feet long with a sharp hoop at one end -- and swung it like a baseball bat. Burk alleged that trainers use it to beat elephants. Since 2000, the circus's use of bullhooks and chains on elephants and the separation of baby elephants from their mothers have been been at a center of a federal lawsuit.

Animal rights groups have accused Ringling Bros. of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications at Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., said accusations in the lawsuit are baseless.

''We completely reject them and look forward to proving that our animal care is the best in the world,'' he said.

Of the circus' 54 elephants, 18 are part of traveling shows, while 30 elephants reside at the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Payne said.

He further predicted the protest would have little effect on the attendance of circus goers.

Indeed, most people who arrived for the show Friday paid no attention to the protesters despite the video and banners depicting elephants with chained feet.

J.C. Lopez, of Miami, came with his three daughters, Britney, 7; Anne, 8; and Marie, 4. ''I just don't want to get involved with that,'' he said, referring to the protest. ''We got tickets from Anne's school. They love animals so I figured I'd bring them down here,'' Lopez said.

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