Stephen Payne wants to assure circusgoers that all the animals in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are treated with love and respect.
Payne is vice president of Feld Entertainment, the circus' parent company. He invites ticketholders to come an hour early to the Toyota Center, where they will be able to help feed some of the animals and talk with the performers.
Circuses, in general, have been accused for years of mistreating performing animals, and Ringling Brothers has endured its share of criticism.
"They are flat-out wrong," Payne said. "We have a commitment to our Asian elephant family, and that's why we established a 200-acre site in central Florida for a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to elephant conservation."
A team of animal care professionals travels ahead of the circus to set up the animal compound in each city, he said.
"All of our animals are trained using repetition and reward," Payne said. "I have spent a good deal of time backstage, and the elephants, in particular, act excited about going out to perform."
One of the elephants, Carole, was shot earlier this year when the circus was in Tupelo, Miss., Payne said.
"Now why would someone do that? Fortunately, Carole has recovered from her shoulder injury and she'll even be performing at the Toyota Center," Payne said.
But the 39-year-old Asian elephant won't be one of the animals circusgoers can help feed before the show begins, he added.
-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; email@example.com; Twitter: @dorioneal