Big Top of Horrors

Ten years ago, as Circus Gatti was performing in Portland, two chimps unleashed a can of whoop-ass on their trainer, dragged him into the stands, and then mauled a young child. It was a horrifying scene that probably incurred thousands of dollars in therapy for a whole sub-population of Portland adolescents. And this weekend, Circus Gatti returns to town.

Over the past few years, traveling circuses have become a heated battlefield for animal rights activists. When Barnum & Bailey arrived in town last summer, a young woman dressed only in orange and black body paint locked herself in a cage at Pioneer Square. She held a sign proclaiming, "Wild Animals Should Not Be Caged." Since then, this stunt has become commonplace for PETA; they've repeated it in dozens of cities throughout the U.S.

Undermining public support for circuses has become a primary objective for PETA, and it seems as if they are gaining ground: In the past five years, audiences for animal-based circuses have steadily declined. PETA also helped lobby Congress to toughen requirements for animal handling under the Animal Welfare Act. (Although an amendment did pass last session to include more animals under its protective arm, the Bush administration has stalled those changes.) Moreover, many counties and cities around the country have instigated all-out bans on animal-based circuses.

"These bans are popping up all over the place," says Jane Garrison, spokesperson for PETA. About 30 cities in the U.S.--including Pasadena, California and Boulder, Colorado--have established such ordinances. Garrison claims that another 20 or so are considering similar laws; Portland is not one of those. (In fact, this weekend's circus is sponsored by the local police bureau.)

Although Circus Gatti has one of the most disturbing records for animal-treatment in the business--several years ago, a tiger got caught in a ring of fire and ignited--PETA has not publicly announced any protests.

In related news, last week PETA filed a lawsuit against the world-renowned Ringling Brothers, alleging that the circus company has infiltrated PETA with spies. Sounding surprisingly similar to some of the undercover tactics that PETA has used to obtain film footage from animal laboratories, the lawsuit claims that Ringling Brothers hired former CIA spooks as long ago as 1994 to slowly work their way into the organization. PHIL BUSSE