As they made their way into Bankers Life Fieldhouse to attend the "Greatest Show on Earth," a few people stopped to talk with members of the Indiana Animal Rights Alliance who were protesting the cruel animal practices used by the Ringling Brothers Circus. They picked up pamphlets and asked questions.
But most avoided eye contact as they walked past several dozen demonstrators carrying signs depicting some of the training techniques and living conditions the elephants were forced to endure. One woman shielded the eyes of the toddler she carried hurriedly past the group.
"They try not to look at us because they don't want to know the truth," activist Linda Cridge said. She made it difficult for them to ignore her as she politely approached people with her message. "Please don't buy a ticket next year."
Several people yelled at the protestors to "shut up," denying allegations of animal abuse.
The animal rights activists urged circus-goers to research the documented history of abuse and not to support it by attending the circus.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Protection Institute had filed a lawsuit that cited violations of the Endangered Species Act — specifically, that the circus systematically abuses and exploits elephants by using metal bullhooks (heavy batons with a sharp point and hook on the end)to control them, and chains their legs while they are not performing. Undercover investigations by animal rights groups have documented beatings and deaths.
Feld Entertainment Inc., which produces the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, agreed to pay a record penalty in the form of a $270,000 fine levied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act on several occasions from June 2007 to August 2011. The charge was settled out of court.
Surrounded by several children, one angry woman who acknowledged the abusive treatment of the animals nevertheless complained about the protestors' "guilt tactics."
"We come here for a little fun," she called out to the picketers. "Don't make us feel guilty about it!"
One father encouraged his two-year-old-daughter to "say it, say it!" She uttered an expletive to the demonstrators.
The IARA had a presence at the fieldhouse prior to each performance, with a contingent of up to 100, some of whom drove from as far away as Kentucky and braved sleet, snow and cold temperatures.
Doug Ross had to travel only a few blocks from his Downtown home. He showed up for several performances, wearing a sandwich sign and carrying two more.
Carrie Knight came from Greenwood because of her love of animals. "Elephants are social," she said. "They shouldn't be treated like this."
IARA founder and executive director Joel Kerr's goal is to end animal exploitation. "Animals are not ours to use for entertainment," he said. "They should be free from human violence. We shouldn't cause needless suffering for our food, entertainment or lab experiments."
Bottom line, said Marissa Tolentino, who demonstrated at five circus performances over the weekend, "It needs to end."
Sadly, said Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling is used to protests.
"There are a lot of misguided groups opposed to the level of care we provide," he said.
Those who don't like the treatment of their animals don't need to buy a ticket, he said, but the people who did had the opportunity to see the care Ringling provides.
"Animal care is our top priority," Payne said, pointing out that the court never found Ringling to be in violation of animal welfare regulations. "We didn't agree with the USDA findings, but when a regulatory agency holds your license, it's a smart business decision to listen to them."
In response to the charges, Ringling "stepped up training" and hired a compliance officer, Payne said. The officer is none other than former USDA assistant general counsel Kenneth H. Vail, who repeatedly failed to act on recommendations from the USDA's Investigative and Enforcement Services to initiate proceedings against Feld Entertainment for beating, abusively and negligently causing the deaths of animals and withholding evidence from the agency, according to an animal rights group."There are only 35,000 (elephants) left in the world," Payne added. "The circus is one of the few places left where people can see them up close."