Circus picks public fight with the wrong opponent

VIENNA, VA: Long the target of PR campaigns and publicity stunts

staged by animal rights activists, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

last week finally barked back, issuing an open letter about its

protesters' "disingenuous" tactics.

The missive, penned by the circus' chairman and producer Kenneth Feld,

appeared in ads in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and

unleashed a run of media coverage, providing opportunities for both

sides to press their cases on successive editions of NBC's Today


Feld's offensive was prompted by the recent trial of Mark Oliver Gebel,

star elephant handler for Ringling Bros. Last August, investigators from

the Humane Society of Santa Clara, CA brought misdemeanor charges

against Gebel for allegedly bloodying one of his elephants with a bull

hook. Gebel was later found not guilty.

Though prompted by the local Humane Society's action, Feld's write-up

never explicitly mentioned the organization, and instead singled out

PETA for its harshest criticisms. "There's no question that he wanted to

configure the debate as being between Ringling Bros. and an animal

rights group perceived to be a little more radical," said Wayne Pacelle,

SVP of the Humane Society. "They did not want to insert the name of the

Humane Society or any of its chapters because we are perceived to be

more mainstream."

"From a PR viewpoint, it was probably the dumbest thing they could do,"

added Debbie Leahy, a captive animals specialist with PETA. "We've been

flooded with calls from reporters wanting our response, which has given

us many new chances to explain why we think circuses inherently abuse


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