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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town


Friday: 7 p.m.

Saturday: 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m.

Sunday: 1 p.m., 5 p.m.

Cost: $15-$45

For tickets: Call the box office at 423-266-6627 or visit


The circus came to town, and the signs were unmistakable.

There were the trailers for housing performers and their animals as they trek across the country. There were the lines of children in raincoats, filing into McKenzie Arena attached to their parents.

And there were the protesters, standing in a solemn line in the rain, holding signs that said "A Century of Suffering. End It."

In early March, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that elephants, the animals that for many have come to symbolize "The Greatest Show on Earth," would be phased out of its three traveling shows by 2018. That means this weekend's shows could be Chattanoogans' last chance to see the animals perform.

"That was one of the deciding factors," said John Carmon, a Chattanooga father who brought his 12- and 14-year-old kids to see the show and, more specifically, the elephants.

About two hours before the show, 20 families from the Chattanooga Autism Center gathered for a special "sensory touch" event led by equestrian performer Ashley Vargas. Children straddled fluorescent motor bikes and stroked a performing horse named Guido. One boy shrugged on a bright performer's coat, while another spread the arms of a costume out like wings. Low lights and softer sounds meant children in the group would feel safer than they might at a more raucous show.

"We just absolutely love that families have a chance to come and be a part of this," organizer Elizabeth Thornburgh said.

Protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups have long cited what they call the mistreatment of elephants and other animals as cause to close circuses like Ringling Bros. down. They argue the animals live in poor conditions and are improperly handled.

For Thursday's protesters, the promise of the pachyderm's future retirement wasn't enough.

"They're not going to see entertainment," protester Beth Foster said. "They're going to see a show that's really about cruelty for profit."

Foster and about six others gathered across from McKenzie Arena before the show began. They represented the animal rights group Southeast Voice For Animals. Other local organizations have planned to protest each of the remaining shows scheduled through Sunday.

But performers say elephants are part of the family — and will remain so.

"The elephants, to me, are a staple for the circus," Vargas said. This isn't a win for protesters; the elephants will still be around, she said. "They're still gonna be a part of the family."

The circus's parent group, Feld Entertainment, cited economic reasons for phasing out the elephants. They'll be retired to the circus's Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where the majority of its elephants already live. April, one of two Indian elephants who travels with the "Built to Amaze" gold tour visiting Chattanooga, was born there.

The families that were part of Thursday's special show gathered around the ring to watch a special performance by April and Asia. They also got to meet a big-shoed clown and see props.

April and Asia circled the ring trunk-to-tail and then split off. April caught sticks with her trunk and held them in her mouth while Asia completed her specialty — a painting that would later be won by a member of the audience.

"That's a very abstract piece of art, but it's beautiful!" Vargas narrated.

"It seems like they were enjoying themselves," Jodie Mize said as she watched her 9-year-old daughter dance in the ring.

"If you don't have an elephant at the circus, it's not the circus," Tatum Garner said.

Steve McCamy brought his grandchildren to see the show, and said he can "see both sides" of the elephant issue. They're a beloved part of the program, but should be treated humanely, he said.

"We'll miss 'em," McCamy said.

Near the end of the show, as the ringmaster sang and girls in sparkling costumes danced, the red curtains parted. April and Asia came lumbering out again, linked trunk-to-tail, for a lap around the ring.

The crowd cheered.

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwise or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @claire lwiseman.