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“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.