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Thursday, August 31, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ringling tries to avert sideshow at circus

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Greatest Show on Earth is coming back to town, but this time it won't turn City Hall into a circus.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus lumbers back to town in a couple of weeks with a full contingent of lions, tigers and dancing elephants. But City Council members - who earlier this year considered making Seattle the first large city in the country to ban exotic-animal acts - say they will be too busy with the budget to make a fuss.

During public hearings last winter, weeping animal lovers said they thought it was cruel to train and use exotic animals for entertainment. Still, the City Council in February narrowly defeated the proposed ban.

But Ringling is still smarting from the close call and has taken pre-emptive action against another public-relations mess.

The circus bought full-page ads yesterday - costing about $16,000 - in both the city's daily newspapers, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The circus promises in an "open letter to the people of Seattle" that its 400 animals are well-cared-for partners to the human performers and trainers they "work, play and share their lives" with.

The ads are a response to the council brouhaha, said Councilwoman Heidi Wills, who introduced the ordinance with Judy Nicastro and Nick Licata.

"Public awareness is gaining as to the treatment of animals," Wills said. "It's just a matter of time before we get enough votes on the council to do it again."

But Council President Margaret Pageler was against the ban, and Linda Stores, Pageler's spokeswoman, said she doesn't expect the issue to surface soon. "There are more pressing issues right now," including a new budget, she said.

But animal-rights activists plan to take up where they left off during the circus-ban debate when Ringling arrives at Seattle Center's KeyArena for performances Sept. 14-17.

"We think it's reprehensible how the animals with Ringling Bros. are confined their whole lives," said Debbie Leahy, a spokeswoman for PETA's 700,000 members nationwide. The group sponsors protests at most of the 90 cities Ringling visits each year.

"The animals generally have no quality of life," Leahy said. "They're stuck in cages or boxcars in all sorts of inclement weather."

Training goes against the inherent nature of wild animals, said Richard Huffman, spokesman for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), where pets are available for adoption. The agency also runs two centers in the Puget Sound area to treat injured wild animals.

"Their nature is to fear humans, and it is stressful to them to train that instinct that's the result of 10,000 years of genetics out of them," Huffman said.

PETA cites more than two dozen incidents in the past eight years in which it says Ringling animals were mistreated. Five Ringling animals have died in the past two years, including a baby elephant that drowned in a pond last summer while on a "break" at a Texas farm.

Ringling veterinarians think the elephant suffered from cardiac arrythmia and drowned as a result, said Catherine Ort-Mabry, the circus' director of corporate communications.

When any of Ringling's animals die, "it is a great loss to all of us," Ort-Mabry said.

The PETA accusations are the sort of "misconceptions" and "inaccurate information" the circus is trying to counteract with the newspaper ads, Ort-Mabry said.

Besides sponsoring two traveling troupes, Ringling operates its Center for Elephant Conservation, a facility to breed, study and preserve the endangered Asian elephant. Only 50,000 of the beasts are left in the world, Ort-Mabry said, and Ringling's stock represents "the largest and most diverse gene pool for Asian elephants outside Southeast Asia."

But "beyond the emotional rhetoric, the circus is a delightful form of entertainment that people want to see," Ort-Mabry said. "We want to encourage people to come out and see for themselves."

Sally Macdonald's phone message number is 206-464-2248. Her e-mail:

smacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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