The circus came to North Carolina, but if a vocal group of animal-rights protesters had its way, the Ringling Bros. would have been sent packing before the big tent had a chance to rise.

Protesters gathered near the Greensboro Coliseum Feb. 7 to raise awareness for Ringling’s reported mistreatment of its bread and butter: animals.

“Ringling is doing things to animals that are unnatural,” said Martha Cecil, a protester and co-leader of Speak Out for Circus Animals. “You can’t train an elephant to stand on its head. You can’t train a tiger to jump through a flaming hoop by giving it a treat. That’s how the abuse starts. They have to break the will of the animals they get.”

Protesters held up signs outside the coliseum depicting elephants tied up in ropes and the tools they say circus trainers use, such as bullhooks, chains and stun guns. Other signs bore sentiments such as “Let’s be a leader in animal welfare” and “Stop supporting slavery.”

The Greensboro Coliseum hosted Ringling Bros. from last week until Sunday, during which eight protests took place on the corner of Patterson and High Point Road. Approximately 200 people have protested since Wednesday, Cecil estimated.

“We’re reaching out to people and making them think,” said Colleen Smith, co-leader of Speak Out for Circus Animals. “If we get them curious, then they can find out for themselves what circuses do.”

Ringling Bros. has been the focus of several protests since pictures of its employees using violent training methods on elephants and video footage of the use of dangerous animal-control tools before performances surfaced.

At least 29 Ringling elephants, including four babies, have died since 1992.

“Ringling transports these animals 50 out of 52 weeks a year in tiny cages and they use cruel training methods to get them to do tricks,” said protester Clare Farrow, a junior at Elon University. “Animals in circuses are taught from the beginning stages of their lives to fear humans, and force is used to keep them in line. It’s not healthy.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Ringling Bros. $270,000 in late 2011 for Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations that began in June 2007. The fine was the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an animal exhibitor.

Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communication for Ringling parent company Feld Entertainment, said the fine was paid so Ringling could start fresh. downplaying its importance.

“We have an excellent team of trainers that takes great care of these animals 24 hours a day,” he said. “The claims PETA and other groups are making are absurd and insulting. Our trainers are in this business because they care about and love animals.”

According to Payne, protesters at the North Carolina shows have had no impact on Ringling’s business, and its supporters are not bothered by the abuse findings.

“We always say to people that they should come and see the circus for themselves,” he said. “Then they can have a better understanding of Ringling and how well we treat our animals.”

In 2012, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), along with other animal rights groups, paid a $15.75 million settlement to Feld Entertainment, the end of a 14-year legal battle over Ringling’s treatment of its elephants. A key witness in the case for the animal rights groups, a former Ringling employee, was deemed a paid plaintiff by U.S. District Judge Emmett G. Sullivan.

“Ringling has always won when they’ve been sued because they are such a huge conglomerate,” Cecil said. “They can afford to cover it up and get people to still come to their shows.”

Protesters also gathered near Ringling shows in Raleigh and Fayetteville this week, a narrative that has played out across the country.

Activists in other cities have called on local governments to stop the circus from coming to town. Several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chapel Hill and Stamford, Connecticut, have bans or restrictions on animals in circuses. More than 30 countries have done the same.

Advances in communication technologies, the increasing popularity of non-animal circuses like Cirque du Soleil and the notoriety of documentaries such as “Blackfish” could be a factor in these bans. 

“It’s so easy to get behind these protests,” Farrow said. “There are many similar options for entertainment that don’t hurt animals, like Cirque du Soleil or animal documentaries. It’s something people can help raise awareness of without a lot of investment.”

The future of animal circuses in Greensboro is cloudier. Farrow said North Carolina is not an animal-friendly state, but small steps like bullhook bans are likely to make a difference.

“We’re going to follow the other cities and states’ examples that have banned circuses, like Asheville,” Cecil said, pointing out the recent animal circus ban at Asheville’s US Cellular Center. Cathy Justice, a community relations specialist for the city of Greensboro, said a few people have brought up the possibility of an animal circus ban at council meetings, but the city council has not yet seriously considered such measures.

A ban may not help at all, as human interaction with animals has reached a point of no return, according to Dave Gammon, associate professor of biology at Elon.

“Humans have messed with animal lives in so many ways that it’s almost pointless to preserve some idea of nature that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Gammon, who studies animal behavior.

Gammon said there are some advantages to having circuses around, despite the clouds of controversy that tend to trail behind.

“Circuses raise awareness and enthusiasm for animals, and they can inspire kids to care about them,” he said. “I think it’s debatable if it’s a worse standard of living for them as compared to the wild, where they face all sorts of threats.”

Activists are keeping the debate alive. These protests may roll into the next generation, which is what Cecil and other activists are hoping for.

“We mainly want to educate children about how no wild animal should be held captive in the circus,” she said. “One day we are going to pass the torch on to them.”

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