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Circus comes to town—and with it, animal-rights activists

WASHINGTON—"The Greatest Show on Earth" doesn't include a bare-breasted woman who's shackled and painted with scratch marks, but Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have grown accustomed to seeing her outside the Big Top.

Brandi Valladolid of Phoenix is there to draw attention to animal-rights activists, who for five years have been protesting what they charge is the circus's inhumane treatment of its animals. The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals goes virtually everywhere the circus does, handing out leaflets, staging protests and frequently showcasing the 29-year-old Valladolid.

"We live in a tabloid society and we are not afraid of playing by the rules," said Valladolid, who wore nothing but a black bikini bottom as she posed in front of PETA signs.

The group organized in front of the White House to make its case before the Thursday evening premiere of Ringling Bros.' 55-show stay in Washington.

Ringling Bros. representatives were nearby to counter PETA's allegations that circus animals are trained and handled using physical abuse such as prodding and shocking and are confined in unnatural environments.

"Our animals have the best care ever," said Kelley Jenkins McCormick, a spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. "Our animals are trained with love, repetition and reward."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began regulating the treatment of circus animals in 1970. In 35 years, there have been 19 investigations into Ringling Bros., said Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA.

Three investigations resulted in letters of warning. Two cases involving an elephant performing while sick were closed under an out-of-court settlement that required Ringling Bros. to donate $10,000 to an elephant sanctuary and $10,000 to research for infectious diseases in elephants, Rogers said.

Eleven investigations were dismissed, but three remain open. One involves a young lion that died while being transported through the Mojave Desert. Frank Hagan, the lion handler, was fired by Ringling Bros. after the animal's death. Hagan has traveled with PETA and has told USDA that the lion died because of heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Alex Rios of Fairfax, Va., who stopped to watch the PETA demonstration, said the group's allegations weren't enough to prevent him from taking his year-and-a-half-old son, Joe, to the circus.

"You go to the circus and you see that they are bad to the animals, and that's not right, but on the other hand, circuses are good for kids," said Rios.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CIRCUS

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