By Scott Thompson
The self-described "world's largest circus under the big top" came to Bluffton Thursday, entertaining several hundred adults and children with tricks from elephants, tigers, and various dog breeds, performances from trapeze artists, motorcyclists and other human acts, as well as hijinks from clowns.
It also drew a handful of animal-rights protesters.
The Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars held two shows Thursday at Buckwalter Place after a pair of performances scheduled for Wednesday were canceled due to wet conditions from rain earlier in the week.
Bluffton was the third stop on a nine-month, 100-city tour that began in March for the Deland, Fla.-based traveling show.
"We just started, and we'll be going straight right on up to Thanksgiving," circus marketing director Tom Renesto said. "From here, we'll keep heading up I-95 with stops all the way to Massachusetts. Then we'll head west and eventually make our way back home to Florida."
It was the circus' first time performing in Bluffton. Four shows were scheduled last March, but heavy rain scrapped those as well.
"We're finally getting a chance to put on shows here, and Bluffton's been great," Renesto said.
But not everyone was there for the performances.
Outside the tent, about a dozen protesters demonstrated against the circus, which has been accused in the past of mistreating its animals. The protest was organized by Bluffton resident Shanti Bringas, who helped plan a protest for last year's shows before they were axed.
The group members, who said they were not affiliated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or other animal-rights activist groups, held signs and distributed informational pamphlets to the crowds walking into the shows.
"We just want to get as many people that don't know about what goes on behind the scenes at these circuses to learn about how unnaturally these animals are treated," Bluffton resident Laurie McDougall said.
In July 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Cole Bros. for violations of the Animal Welfare Act that included failure to provide proper veterinary care and nutrition for its elephants. Those charges were settled after the circus paid a $15,000 fine in October 2012.
Also in 2011, the circus and its president and CEO, John Pugh, pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the Endangered Species Act for selling two endangered Asian elephants without obtaining the proper documentation. The circus was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay more than $150,000 in fines.
Pugh defended the circus and its treatment of its animals Thursday. Sitting in a golf cart and gazing over at the protesters, he said they were entitled to their opinions.
"Them being there doesn't bother me; I just wish they would at least tell the truth," Pugh said. "We get inspected by the USDA, sometimes three times a week. We're probably the most inspected business in the world. These elephants receive better health care and attention than a lot of humans. They're like children to us. We're all family."
Sitting next to Pugh, Elvin Bale, the circus' vice president of operations, described him as a family man.
"John loves animals, and he loves children and entertaining them," Bale said. "Our circus and others like us do a great deal to raise awareness about these endangered elephants and tigers.
"If the protesters knew about what happens to elephants in other parts of the world, they'd have a better idea of what we're about. We don't mind them being here; I just wish they'd stop harassing the public who's here to enjoy the show and have fun."
Harassing the public was not the group's goal, Bluffton resident and protester Marisa Goodrich said.
"We're not here to deter anyone from coming, but we do want them to make their own decisions with all the facts on hand," Goodrich said. "After that, if they still choose to go, that's fine, but we just want people to know what these animals are facing every day."