When the circus comes to town, there is literally an elephant in the room.
Animal rights activists, notably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, are not fans. The group's Web site includes anti-circus videos such as Circus Elephants: Training and Tragedy, details of the alleged cruelty circus animals suffer, and hints for keeping the circus from coming to town.
The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and its animals, are at Rupp Arena in Lexington through Sunday.
Carl Hall, director of arena management at Rupp, said he hadn't gotten any calls, but he expected some kind of demonstration, as there has been every year in recent memory that the circus has come to town.
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"They come every year after the first performance," he said.
Rupp has set up a special area for the protesters to make their case. Hall says he goes out to chat with them. The crowd has ranged from a handful to several dozen, he said.
PETA's contention is straightforward.
"Abuse starts while these animals are babies, and they are denied everything that is natural," said Carney Anne Chester, a circus expert with PETA. "They spend most of their lives confined in boxcars traveling the country from venue to venue. ... In the wild, they could roam up to 30 miles a day."
But Ryan Henning, an animal care specialist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, said concerns about animal welfare are off base.
"Every day, every year, every month," said Henning, who is performing with the circus in Lexington, "things are changing for the better."
Henning came from a circus family. For decades, his ran a circus research library it founded at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., where the Ringling brothers formed their first circus in 1884.
Henning broke into the business with a camel act and worked his way up to elephants, starting with the most basic care and ultimately taking center ring with the pachyderms.
Even after being with the circus for seven years, Henning said, he is awed by his charges.
"They are such magnificent creatures. They are so, so intelligent," he said. 'They are such affectionate and gentle animals and gentle giants."
Henning calls the six 8,000-pound Asian elephants that are in Lexington his "divas" and said they are lavished with care.
What people might not know, he said, is that only about a third of the 44 elephants in the circus herd actually perform. Those animals, he said, are chosen because their temperaments and personalities are suited to the large crowds and stimulation of the show.
"Just like your pets at home," he said, "they have different personalities."
In 1995, the circus created a 200-acre, $5 million facility in Florida to care for the elephants and preserve the species. There are about 35,000 Asian elephants in the wild, Henning said, and breeding and conservation programs like the one created by Ringling Bros. is invaluable. Twenty-three elephants have been born as part of the conservation center's breeding program since the 1990s.
"The most important thing is to try to educate the public on the numbers and that these are an endangered species," he said.
Not surprising, the conservation argument doesn't register with PETA's Chester. She is so dedicated to the cause, she called the Herald-Leader from a New Orleans hotel as Hurricane Isaac was pummeling the city and shut off power at her house.
Ringling Bros., she says, is a for-profit institution looking to keep making money. Elephants are part of the show, and a breeding operation ensures they have an ongoing supply.
Ideally, she said, the public will grow tired of seeing animals dance and stand on their heads, especially when they realize that physical punishment is the preferred training tool.
Things are changing, she said, and animal acts have been outlawed in some cities. Circuses featuring only humans, such as Cirque du Soleil, continue to grow in popularity. There is no middle ground, she said, no concession that can make animal acts OK.
"Every purchase of a ticket supports animal abuse," she said.
Hall, of Rupp Arena, says he considers himself a fan of a traditional circus and has known the family that runs the Ringling Bros. show for decades. Each year, he says, he tries to convince demonstrators that the animals are not in harm's way.
"They treat their animals better than some people treat their children," he said of the circus.
As for Kentuckians, Hall said, residents seem to agree with Hall's penchant for what he considers old-time family fun. When the Ringling circus came to town in 2007, he said, Rupp sold 19,000 tickets. Last year, he said, the total was 23,000.