Ringling jabs at animal rights groups
By LEONORA LaPETER
ST. PETERSBURG -- The chairman of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus chose Monday to fight animal rights protesters with a large-scale media campaign, the same day his camels, horses and elephants lumbered down First Avenue S to the Times Arena at Bayfront Center.
Kenneth Feld, chairman and producer of Ringling Bros., spent almost $220,000 Monday on a full-page ad titled "An open letter to animal rights groups" in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
The ads suggested that animal rights organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, spend far too much on "politically motivated lawsuits, violent and sexually titillating ads, publicity stunts" and not enough actually caring for animals.
"Well-intentioned people give money to hopefully help animals, and that money goes to printing posters, staging demonstrations and flying people and that naked tiger lady around the country," said Rodney Huey, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. "We really think the American people should really understand where their money is going."
The ad comes two weeks after a California jury acquitted circus trainer Mark Oliver Gebel on a charge he abused a 4-ton elephant named Asia with a metal hook outside a performance last summer. Feld, who sat through the trial with Gebel, said he was prompted to write the letter because the trial represented a "senseless waste of taxpayers' money."
While the ad would seem to be an attempt to hit animal rights activists where they have been hurt most since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 -- in the pocket -- a PETA spokeswoman said the circus is helping the animal rights cause get its message out.
"From a public relations viewpoint, it was the dumbest thing they could do," said Debbie Leahy, a captive animal specialist with PETA, which is based in Norfolk, Va. "We were flooded with calls from the media who wanted our position on it, and that gave us an opportunity to talk about the issues."
Leahy said Ringling is just trying to pick on the messenger to deflect attacks that they abuse animals in their care.
For several years, Ringling officials have tried to counter what they say are false statements by animal rights organizations, but this is the first time they've taken out full-page ads to do so.
"We're trying to step out in front and be offensive instead of defensive," said David Kiser, Ringling's production manager, standing in the middle of First Avenue S as circus workers behind him prodded the elephants out of the circus train Monday. "We have over 70 elephants that we take care of and no one cares for them better."
There were no protesters visible as the animals were unloaded from the trains Monday -- just avid circus watchers who braved a cool drizzle.
"My parents used to take me to see the circus animals arriving 20 years ago, and I wanted to take my son," said Joy Appugliese, 33, who held her son, Thomas, 4, in her arms.
"Even back then, it wasn't a lot but it was everything."
-- Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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