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A circus without tigers and lions... Oh my!

A Denver initiative seeks to ban wild animals from the ring, but some call these acts 'as American as apple pie'

High school freshman Heather Herman is a lifelong animal lover. She also loves circus acts. But, she says, the two don't belong in the same ring.

Now Ms. Herman is the force behind a Denver ballot initiative that seeks a municipal ban on circus-animal acts citywide. If approved by voters, Denver would be the first major US city to adopt such a ban and would join a growing roster of communities, from Stamford, Conn., to Pasadena, Calif., that already prohibit wild or exotic animal displays.

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"I just feel it's the right thing to do," says Herman, who attends Arvada High School and founded Youth Opposed to Animal Acts (YOTAA) when she was in 7th grade. "I really enjoy the circus. But I like it without the animals."

Herman's initiative is the first citizen-sponsored ballot attempt to keep wild animals out of the circus and represents a broad movement spreading nationally. "There are lots of communities out there doing this," says Richard Farinato, director of Captive Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

He estimates that some 30 local governments have enacted bans on such animal performances. In Colorado, Boulder and Estes Park already prohibit wild animal displays. Meanwhile, a statewide ban is pending in the Massachusetts legislature.

Last spring, YOTAA began collecting signatures to require the city to put the measure on the ballot. In late 2003, election officials verified the required 5,969 signatures - representing 5 percent of Denver voters. A public vote is set for Aug. 10.

The ban would cover all "wild or exotic animals," according to the ordinance, to protect them from "cruel and inhumane treatment" associated with public entertainment exhibitions.

Wild or exotic animals include elephants, lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, chimps, seals, and crocodiles. The measure makes exemptions for the Denver Zoo, the National Western Stock Show, and Ocean Journey, since these entities are accredited by the American Zoological Association, says Herman.

At the heart of the controversy is whether it's inherently cruel for wild animals to be in traveling circuses, where they are confined in cages and must perform for human amusement. Animal-rights groups argue that wild animals deserve to live in a more natural environment and can't be trained to perform circus tricks without harsh and abusive techniques - including use of electric prods, whips, and bullhooks.

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"It's not natural for tigers to jump through fire. It's not natural for elephants to be chained and forced to perform," says Dan Hanley, who volunteers with Rocky Mountain Animal Defense and helped gather signatures for the Denver initiative last year.

Circus industry officials, however, insist that their animals receive top-notch care, and face none of the hazards and hardships they would in the wild.

"The love of animals that inspired that [Denver] petition is the same love we feel for our animals. We really set the standard for animal care," says Mark Riddell, spokesman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which each year tours 100 US cities - including Denver - with some 60 animals in its care.

"The reality of the wild is very different for animals than the ideal that's imagined by humans," he continues. "Our animals are well-fed and well-cared for. In most cases, animals at Ringling Bros. outlive their counterparts in the wild."

The petition was one that area animal-rights defenders readily supported, Mr. Hanley says, but hadn't considered attempting themselves. "I think what Heather did was tremendous. I think people will vote for this ordinance."

Herman is far from the typical activist. Prior to founding YOTAA, she'd never dabbled in animal-rights or political issues. But after researching the conditions endured by circus animals, she says she became alarmed and wanted to initiate change.

"Basically, I just wanted to do something to help. I've always had a soft spot for animals," she says.

Because Herman and most of YOTAA's volunteers are minors, her mother, Nancy Klix, signed the formal petition. The poised, articulate teenager says she's experienced a crash course in the legal process since taking on the issue.

Herman is quick to point out that the objective isn't to ban circuses from Denver. "We want the circus to come to town. Just without the animals," she says. The tremendous success of performances like Cirque du Soleil is testament to the public's willingness to embrace animal-free shows, she says.

Would the Greatest Show on Earth be as great without the elephants and tigers? For Mr. Riddell at Ringling Bros. the answer is an emphatic "no."

"Audience surveys tell us that the No. 1 reason people come to shows is to see the elephants," he says. "Our position is that it's very educational. The circus is one of the few places that kids can see humans and wild animals working together. This can inspire people to care about animals and devote their lives to animals."

But the Humane Society's Farinato counters that the educational benefit, if any, comes at the expense of animals. "We don't think it's worth the pain and suffering that can come through all the transporting, training, and performance of these animals."

Because the public is shielded from realities behind the big top, it's "a slow, uphill climb" to change long-held attitudes about having wild animals in circuses, he says. "I think it's been traditional, and as American as apple pie to have elephants in circuses. But I think the tide is turning, slowly but surely."