January 8, 2006
Circus Animals Inside, Protests Outside
Fla. group dogs Ringling Bros., claiming elephants are mistreated.
Dana Willhoit
The Ledger

LAKELAND -- The clown in the bright red wig waving at passing cars Saturday afternoon was not trying to direct people to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show at The Lakeland Center.

click to enlarge

Bryan Wilson of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, left,
and Dale Beaubien of Lakeland protest the treatment of elephants
 by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus outside The
Lakeland Center on Saturday. DAVID MILLS/THE LEGER.

Bryan Wilson was holding up a large picture of an elephant's leg with a chain on it. His wife, Carla Wilson, was holding up a sign alleging that 24 elephants have died in the circus' care.

"We're out here being a voice for the animals," Carla Wilson said. The two are members of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, a group that claims that to use elephants in circus acts is abusive.

They stationed themselves at the corner of Lime Street and Sikes Boulevard, and vowed to be there for every performance of the circus, which runs through tonight.

Further, Carla Wilson said that members of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida will be at every Ringling performance in the state.

Indeed, protesters were set up outside a circus performance at Tampa's Ice Palace on Saturday morning.

The protests are part of a debate over the humaneness of circus performances that involve animals.

"We want people to know that behind the glitz and glamour of the circus, there is a dark world of whips and chains," Carla Wilson said.

The Animal Rights Foundation claims that elephants are routinely abused to make them perform in the circus.

"They perform out of fear and intimidation," she said.

Darin Johnson, national public relations director for Ringling Bros., denies this.

"I think the most important thing for people to know is that elephants are a large part of the Ringling family and a significant amount of time and resources is devoted to their care," he said.

Ringling Bros. owns an elephant conservation center in Polk County, where retired elephants are placed and where Asian elephants are bred, Johnson said.

"We're extremely proud of our Johnson said that Ringling Bros.' research showed that 80 percent of the people who come to the circus say they come to see the animals.

"It's in our best interest to make sure our animals are healthy and robust and comfortable in their surroundings," Johnson said.

A steady stream of cars flowed into The Lakeland Center parking lot Saturday afternoon before the 2 p.m. show, but The Lakeland Center declined to release the number of people who attended the circus.

Dana Willhoit can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7550.