“You’re the only one who can stop it from happening.”
Lisa Qualls’s voice rang out over the loudspeaker across the street from an entrance into George Mason University’s Patriot Center, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently showing. Families were pouring into the area for the Sunday afternoon performance.
“An educated consumer is Ringling Bros.’ worst enemy.”
Her calm statements are loud, but are nearly drowned out at times by a competing loudspeaker from the Patriot Center directing show attendees to come inside. Qualls invokes a website as a chant in response through the loudspeaker.
“Circuses.com. Circuses.com. Circuses.com.”
Qualls, an administrative assistant at a construction company, has been part of protests against the circus for eight years, working with various animal rights groups over time. She was a founding member of Compassion for Animals. Today, she’s here for herself.
“[I’m here] because the animals can’t speak for themselves,” Qualls said. “We are the only ones who can do it. Every voice matters.”
A mother and daughter protest group stand on another corner nearby, holding up signs and passing out pamphlets. Diana Martin protested circuses before her daughter Katherine was born, and even when her daughter and son were in the stroller, but this is the first time she’s protested in years.
“[Protesting] is not fun to do,” Diana said. “It’s so depressing.”
Eleven-year-old Katherine Martin did her own research and decided she wanted to take action.
“I’ve heard of the circus animal cruelty and I wanted to stop it,” Katherine said.
Children often stare wide-eyed at the protest signs as they pass by, seeing the animals but not comprehending the words that say, “Ringling Beats Animals,” “Caged for Life” and “Elephants Never Forget,” set to pictures of animals in cages and alleged mistreatment of elephants.
“Lots of those younger kids are learning to read still,” Katherine said. “They’ll stare at the poster and go, ‘oh it’s a lion.’ It’s frustrating really.”
Diana expressed sadness at the alleged mistreatment of circus animals she believes is occurring behind the scenes.
“I wish it weren’t true,” Diana said. “I’d love to be in denial. It’s not pleasant to think about.”
Many of the protesters share stories about circus attendees saying glib comments, getting angry, cursing, or more often, just ignoring them.
“Some people get angry because there are little kids here and the pictures can be quite disturbing,” said George Mason University freshman Wynne Bowman, a member of Mason’s Animal Rights Collective.
The protesters’ signs had pictures of alleged elephant training sessions and various animals in cages.
“They don’t want their children to see [the protest signs],” Qualls said. “If their children see it and get upset, they won’t go [into the circus]. They have to explain it to them so they’ll usually lie to them.”
Mason senior Ramiz Andoni, who came to protest the circus for the first time with his fiancé, said “Enjoy watching elephants getting tortured” a few times to attendees who ignored his attempts to give them pamphlets. One woman retorted, “They don’t look like they’re being tortured.” Some of the other protesters expressed dislike for Andoni’s methods, saying that his confrontational style could actually cause damage to their cause.
One man cursed at the protesters while passing them by with his family.
Others react more kindly. One father, arms full of his two young daughters, still reached for a pamphlet, saying, “I might disagree with you but I’m still glad y’all are here.”
“Mostly people just take the leaflet and don’t say anything,” said Tony Clarke of Compassion for Animals. “We hope they’ll take it home and read it later on after they ‘enjoy the show.’”
“Every time we do this we reach somebody,” Qualls said.
“In one out of 10 people it might make a difference,” Diana said.
More protesters came out around 7 p.m. Sunday as the afternoon performance let out – about ten of them lined up along the road out of the parking lot. One man brought a TV screen on top of long pole, playing a video of alleged elephant training sessions with a voiceover and subtitles for people driving by.
“People are a little bit more accepting afterward,” Clarke said. He speculated that after the show is over, attendees feel that they have received their money’s worth and are more open to discussion. Several workers at the Patriot Center came over to speak to the protesters after the show.
“The best thing that people can do is to not go to circuses with animals and choose other forms of entertainment,” computer programmer and Compassion for Animals member Gary Loewenthal said.
Janice Aria, the Director of Animal Stewardship at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, said the animal abuse allegations are false.
"The idea of overpowering an elephant is preposterous," Aria said. "They’re extremely smart and it’s beautiful to see how much they want to please you. They really love the treats—they’re very food motivated—and that makes forming the bond a pretty easy process. But you have to make it viable: To imply that people who have spent their lives doing this would do it for anything other than for the privilege of that bond is really insulting."
The schedule of future protests against the circus can be found on the events page ofCompassion4Animals.com. The protesters’ pamphlets directed circus attendees to visit circuses.com,RinglingBeatsAnimals.com and idausa.org for more information on the alleged mistreatment of animals.
Aria answered numerous other allegations made by protesters - Burke Patch will be running a piece outlining the charges and her answers tomorrow.