Circuses have been the focus of criticism through the years from activists who claim performance animals are mistreated or abused.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which comes to the Tri-Cities this week, has been repeatedly targeted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
PETA investigations in 2009 and 2011 uncovered alleged psychological and physical abuse of the circus's elephants, according to PETA spokeswoman Katie Arth.
In one example cited by Arth, two of the elephants had foot problems and were forced to perform anyway.
Stephen Payne, vice president of Feld Entertainment, which owns the Ringling Brothers circus, acknowledges the circus was fined $270,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture two years ago for allegedly forcing a sick elephant to perform.
"We did not agree with the majority of their inspection, but we chose to settle and move on," Payne said. "We are still licensed by the USDA and did not want a protracted dispute with them. Ringling Brothers has never been found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and this settlement with the USDA did not change that."
The circus has a team of animal specialists who accompany the elephants day and night to keep them healthy and happy, Payne said. They travel ahead of the circus to set up the animal compound in each city.
The circus also owns a 200-acre site in central Florida dedicated to the conservation, breeding and understanding of Asian elephants, he said. "Our commitment to preserving their species is something we take very seriously."
The property provides room for the elephants to roam when they are not touring. When they're on the road, they're housed in areas with their social groups, where they get plenty of food and water, he said.
"We also make sure there's plenty of time for exercise and play while touring," he said. "All of our animals are trained using repetition and reward. I have spent a good deal of time backstage, and the elephants in particular act excited about going out to perform."
West Richland resident Judi Nelson remembers as a young girl rushing from a circus tent after the elephants entered the arena.
"I rushed out not because I was afraid of them," Nelson said. "But because of the sadness in their eyes. That memory remains."
Though Nelson is not a member of PETA, she shares their fervor for animal safety.
"I have not seen the abuse personally," she said. "But I have read countless statements by witnesses of abuse. My hope is that an enlightened public will demand animals be released from the circus, given to sanctuaries and that animal-less circuses will prevail."
PETA isn't the only organization keeping an eye on Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Other animal welfare agencies, including the ASPCA, brought litigation against the circus alleging elephant mistreatment, but the court never ruled on the merits of the allegations that were made in the underlying Endangered Species Act case, instead deciding the matter on the issue of standing, Emily Schneider, an ASPCA spokeswoman, told the Herald. "In 2012, the ASPCA decided that it was in the best interest of the organization to resolve its expensive, protracted litigation with Feld Entertainment, and reached a settlement of $9.3 million," Schneider said. "As part of the settlement, the ASPCA does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing." The judge said the lawsuit should have never been filed because the primary witness was a paid informant, according to Reuters.
A growing number of U.S. states have restrictions governing traveling shows and circuses. In Washington, the cities of Renton and Port Townsend have enacted those restrictions, according to a report at Bornfreeusa.org
Asked by the Herald if PETA's pressure has resulted in better treatment for circus animals, Arth said, "There is no way a wild animal can ever be treated humanely while living in captivity."
Payne believes PETA and ASPCA supporters have good intentions in pursuing animal safety, but they go too far, he said.
"If PETA had its way, I'd have to go home and liberate my wiener dog," he said.
-- What: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus
-- When: 7 p.m. Sept. 26-27; 3 and 7 p.m. Sept. 28 and 1 p.m. Sept. 29
-- Cost: $20 to $30 for stadium seats or $35 for floor seats. Kids ages 2 to 12 are $10. Opening-night show tickets cost $10 for all seats except the VIP section and floor seats.
-- Tickets: Toyota Center box office or at ticketmaster.com. Tickets purchased at the box office avoid service charges.
-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dorioneal