- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UPDATED:

Look both ways before crossing the street, never accept candy from a stranger … and when the circus comes to town, stay home.

As the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus rolls through the area, activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are urging that last message on elementary school-age children in an aggressive advocacy campaign against purported animal cruelty practiced by the circus. But some child-development professionals fear PETA’s message and methods are disturbing to young minds.

In advance of the circus’ scheduled opening Wednesday in Baltimore, a PETA volunteer dressed as “Ellie,” a child-friendly elephant mascot, and handed out “Animals Belong in the Jungle” activity books to children and parents on the sidewalk outside the Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School.

One page in the activity book shows a maze with baby elephants and says: “Find a way for [the elephant] to leave the circus and reunite with her family.” Another page has a “life in the circus” word puzzle with terms like “whip,” “hurt” and “bull hook.”

The school was selected for its proximity to the Mariner Arena, the Baltimore venue for the circus, said Kristie Phelps, an assistant director of PETA.

Edie House-Foster, director of information for Baltimore City Public Schools, downplayed Ellie’s school visit, saying that because the PETA volunteer was on a public sidewalk, permission from the school board was not necessary. “There was no strong impact, because it was during dismissal time, and the children were on their way to the bus,” she said.

Ms. House-Foster said she was not aware of any parents calling the school to complain or express concern about the materials being distributed.

Calls to the school’s parent-teacher association by The Washington Times were not returned.

PETA says it has sent about 10,000 of its activity books, replete with cuddly images of tigers and elephants, to schools and libraries all over the country. It also has launched a special Web site with “graphic” video footage of purported animal abuse at circuses, and a separate site for children called petakids.com, which has “a softer message for children 12 and under.”

“This booklet takes an upbeat approach to telling kids the things they have a right to know about the circus,” said Ms. Phelps. “Kids love animals, and if they knew that elephants and other animals are beaten in order to force them to perform what are for them confusing and physically challenging tricks, they’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the circus.”

But Phyllis Ohr, a clinical child psychologist familiar with the PETA campaign, said, “I wonder if PETA is considering the impact of their approach on the mental health of children who are so young and not able to process information and images the same way that adults do.”

Rather than carefully weigh the abstract issue, younger children may personalize the message about animal cruelty in frightening ways, Ms. Ohr said in an e-mail exchange with The Times. “Some young children may believe their own pets are threatened or that they, themselves, are threatened by the cruelty of adults,” she said. “Some children may become fearful of the circus animals rather than feel compassion.

“I believe that showing graphic images without considering the variety of ways a young child might respond is irresponsible. While I don’t disagree with the agenda of PETA, I do believe that the way they have chosen to get their message across to young children is not in the best interest of these young children.”

Ms. Phelps maintained that the PETA materials serve a greater good.

“Let’s give kids credit,” she said. “Kids love Ellie, our elephant mascot. They clamor for the coloring books and stickers. They would be far more upset if they like I did as a child - went to the circus and saw animals who they naturally love and respect being struck with sharp metal devices, shocked with hotshots and forced to perform at the crack of a whip. That is the stuff nightmares are made of.”

Earlier this month, PETA targeted Fulton Elementary in Hempstead, N.Y., which had planned a school-sanctioned field trip of the kind the circus often organizes in the cities it visits.

Rodney Gilmore, assistant superintendent for the Hempstead School District, said that PETA came to the school without asking permission and distributed books and stickers to between 75 and 100 children on the sidewalk during dismissal, as the activists did in Baltimore.

“The visual presentation with the word ‘murder’ in the book and showing the animals in chains was very disturbing,” Mr. Gilmore said. “I believe it was inappropriate the way it was done, and could have had an emotional and psychological impact on the children.”

PETA members also placed unsolicited phone calls to members of the PTA to dissuade the school from taking the field trip, Mr. Gilmore said.

Ms. Phelps said that if schools take their students to the circus, then PETA staff are entitled to come to classrooms and talk to schoolchildren about “how baby elephants are taken away from their mothers and sent out on the road.”

Amy McWethy, a spokeswoman for the circus, said PETA’s outreach is “nothing new.” She said the circus works with schools that have had PETA demonstrations and follows up with school administrators to answer questions from students and parents.

“I was asked by a teacher the other day if the tiger gets hit when the trainer cracks the whip,” she said. “We want people to come see for themselves and ask questions. We have our staff and veterinarians available. We want there to be an array of knowledge.”

The Ringling Brothers Web site has an “Over the Top” field-trip kit that includes documents for students and teachers on “animal care” with the stated objective of teaching that “animals are only trained to do things that are natural for them.”

On field trips, circus staff also play “the training game” to teach children how they get animals to do tricks in a safe and respectful way, according to the site, which also points to the $5 million “elephant conservation center” that Ringling Brothers operates in central Florida.

The circus completed its Washington, D.C., engagement at the Verizon Center on Sunday. The last stop in the area will be at the Patriot Center in Fairfax on April 8.

PETA organizers said they do not plan to demonstrate outside schools in Fairfax.

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