Sunday, February 8, 2004

DENVER - When Heather Herman put an issue on the ballot asking Denver voters whether they wanted to ban wild-animal performances, the 15-year-old took on everyone from Ringling Bros. to Blinky the Clown.

The high school freshman said she attended circuses as a child but recently became concerned about the treatment of animals. She created a group, Youth Opposed to Animal Acts, started a petition and collected enough signatures to put the question on the Aug. 10 ballot.

“In the wild, bears are not riding bicycles and tigers are not jumping through hoops on fire,” Heather said. “I believe strongly that wild animals do not belong in the circus.”

More than 15 communities nationwide, including nearby Boulder, ban performances involving exotic animals, industry officials say. But similar attempts have failed in larger cities, and Heather is fighting a Denver tradition.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been performing in this city since 1919, and Denver’s Barnum neighborhood is named after circus founder P.T. Barnum, who bought 760 acres here in 1882 as a winter respite for his show.

Perhaps Heather’s biggest opponent is money. City officials estimate that the circus’ annual two-week visit pumps $8 million into the local economy.

Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., was caught off guard by the proposal until it came before the City Council late last year. The company protested the plan and even recruited a local television icon, Blinky the Clown, to testify on its behalf.

“We take it serious any time our industry and profession is attacked,” said Tom Albert, vice-president of government relations for Feld. “Heather is clearly well-intentioned and sincere, but she is misinformed and has bad information.”

The council put the question on the ballot because Heather had collected more than 6,000 valid signatures. The proposal would not include exotic animals at the Denver Zoo, the National Western Stock Show, Rodeo & Horse Show or a local aquarium. It targets circuses such as Ringling Bros. and the Shriners.

City Councilman Charlie Brown said he opposes the ban and wondered whether Heather was being misled by information from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But a group that helped collect petition signatures said the proposal was Heather’s and no one else’s.

“I think it shows a lack of faith in our youth to question she’s being influenced by a larger organization,” said David Crawford, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Animal Defense.

John Kirtland, executive director of animal stewardship for Feld Entertainment, disputes assertions that Ringling Bros. mistreats its more than 200 animals. Its Asian elephants live up to 20 years longer than zoo elephants because they get more exercise, he said.

The circus animals are trained to perform by reinforcing positive behavior with food and praise, he said. Federal inspectors visit the training facility weekly.

“Where does she think these animals would go?” Mr. Kirtland asked. “They were all born in captivity, and if they went back to the wild, it would be a certain death sentence.”

Heather’s response is that more than 25 large circuses operate without performing animals. Feld Entertainment invited Heather to visit its animal training facility in Florida, but she declined.

“I know what they will say and what they will show me,” she said. “It won’t be what it is really like.”

On the other side of the issue is Rob Sanchez, 23, who helped start a Web site called Save the Circus (

“This is a handful of activists versus people of Denver who love to go to the circus,” said Mr. Sanchez, who has attended circuses in Denver since he was a child. Still, he gives Heather credit for getting the issue on the ballot.

Mr. Brown, the City Council member, said he is worried about what sort of image Denver might be getting because of its quirky ballot issues, including a recent proposal that would have required the city to reduce stress and increase peace. Voters said no to that one.

“These issues take up so much time and energy and divide the city,” Mr. Brown said. “I’ve gotten hate mail. One told me to go join the circus.”

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