The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is coming to the North Charleston Coliseum on Wednesday, and the promised spectacles are timeless: The Stars of the Steel Vortex acrobatic act! Ukrainian trampoline tumblers! A man who will kiss a 300-pound tiger!

But for some, the show will start and end outside the doors of the Coliseum. Animal rights activists are organizing protests during each of the eight performances, hoping to deter families from buying tickets to the self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth.”

“Bears, elephants, tigers, lions, and other animals do not voluntarily ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire,” writes Melissa Judge, a Florida animal activist, in an e-mail about protests taking place at circus stops from San Diego, Calif., to Uniondale, N.Y. She adds:

Neither child nor adult should be giving a single dollar to Ringling Bros. because they will use it to buy stun guns, whips, electrical prods, and bullhooks to torture their animals with until they comply. For your entertainment. This is nothing less than slavery.”

On a Facebook event page about the protests, activists are told not to yell, chant, or engage with patrons. “Patrons have already purchased tickets, so our goal is to educate and deter from future attendance,” the page reads. Protesters are also encouraged to dress as clowns, elephants, or ring masters “to make the children more at ease and less afraid of us protesters.” As of Monday morning, 39 people had responded to say they will attend the protests.

The five-day circus engagement in North Charleston is also included on a list of activism opportunities posted by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“I’ve been protesting circuses for quite some time,” says Lisa Scharin, a Summerville woman who plans to attend the protests at the Coliseum. Scharin is involved with PETA, Greenpeace, Defense of Animals, Animal Defenders, Born Free, and the World Wildlife Fund, and she says she even went undercover once to videotape alleged mistreatment of tigers and elephants at a Cole Bros. circus.

“I would say that any circus that was traveling like that, there’s no way it could be humane,” Scharin says. “Animals, they can’t speak for themselves. It’s amazing to me that anyone would think it’s fine to put an animal like that into a boxcar, into an 18-wheeler.”

Feld Entertainment Inc., the owner of the circus act and Disney on Ice, has a rough history with animal rights groups, and it was the subject of a scathing Mother Jones exposé in 2011, “The Cruelest Show on Earth.” Company spokesperson Ashley Smith says the circus encounters protesters in every town it visits.

Smith says pictures of elephant training techniques that have been leaked online are misleading when taken out of context. She also disputes the activist groups’ criticism of the use of “bullhooks,” metal poles with hooks that are used to control elephant behavior. She says bullhooks are now referred to as “guides,” and they are used not as negative reinforcement, but as “tactile enforcement.”

“An elephant is a pachyderm, which means ‘thick skin,'” Smith says. “A 10,000-pound elephant is not going to feel somebody touching their shoulder.”

Legal Circus

Feld Entertainment has fought a few legal battles over animal rights in the past.

In 2000, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Protection Institute filed a lawsuit against Feld claiming that the circus was abusing elephants by hitting them with metal bullhooks and chaining their legs while they weren’t performing. But a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in October 2011, saying that the two groups could not establish legal “injury” to themselves. Later, in December 2012, the ASPCA agreed to pay Feld $9.3 million after it was revealed that the ASPCA had paid a former elephant barn worker $199,000 to serve as a plaintiff in the case.

In November 2011, following a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation, Feld agreed to pay a record-breaking $270,000 civil penalty to settle a litany of complaints from the federal agency. The circus had been accused of violating the Animal Welfare Act on several occasions from June 2007 to August 2011. As part of the settlement, the company did not admit any wrongdoing.

According to an Animal Care FAQ page on the circus website, “Ringling Bros. exceeds all federal animal welfare standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Animal Welfare Act.” Train cars are custom-made to fit traveling animals, and caravans stop at scheduled intervals to let the animals exercise, according to the website.

Smith says the circus maintains a herd of 44 Asian elephants, the largest herd in the Western hemisphere, at its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Fla. According to Smith, only one-third of the elephants actually perform. The rest — the males, the young, the old, and the ones that express no interest in performing — stay in Florida.

“Really, what we want people to do is see the animals for themselves and make their own judgment, because they really are our best spokespeople. They are thriving in this environment and thriving in our care,” Smith says.

Protests are planned to start an hour-and-a-half before each circus performance Wednesday through Sunday. If you plan to attend any of the protests, click here to consult the Coliseum’s Free Speech Guide, which includes a map of the Coliseum’s seven Free Speech Zones. Protesters are required to contact the facility director, Wes Dickerson, at (843) 529-5036 before protesting.

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