A circus featuring tigers and elephants comes to Bluffton this week. So is a small protest over animal rights.
Two local women are organizing a peaceful picketing of the Cole Bros. Circus performances Monday and Tuesday at Buckwalter Place after learning there had been complaints of animal mistreatment against the traveling show.
Shanti Bringas and Taylor Canterbury say they aren't part of an animal-rights group, but they decided to boycott the circus after researching the complaints online.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed numerous complaints about Cole Bros. with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging it mistreats its exotic animals. The circus denies those allegations.
Bringas said she and Canterbury, who both have 10-year-old daughters, researched the circus after seeing a flyer advertising the local shows. She was already opposed to circuses featuring animal acts, but decided to go further and picket the shows -- the first time she has participated in or planned a protest, she said.
"I wanted to spread the word that it's a good idea, before you take your children to the circus for fun, to just research it a little bit," she said. "It's easy to find very disturbing knowledge.
"I feel like a lot children think the circus is all fun and games because it's marketed that way, but if they knew what was going on, they wouldn't go."
Prompted by PETA's protests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Cole Bros. with violations of the Animal Welfare Act in July 2011. Its findings included failure to provide proper veterinary care and nutrition for its elephants.
The charges were settled after Cole Bros. paid a $15,000 fine in October 2012, according to USDA records.
Cole Bros.' vice president of administration Renee Storey said there is "a lot of misinformation" about the circus' record, saying it paid the fine to avoid litigation. The circus' response to the USDA neither "admits nor denies" the agency's concerns.
The circus has never been found guilty of violating animal welfare regulations, according to Storey.
In 2011, the circus' owner and a buyer pleaded guilty in Texas federal court to selling two Asian elephants without obtaining permits required for an exchange of endangered animals, according to court records. Storey said that case had nothing to do with animal treatment, but instead with paperwork required by the buyer.
PETA, which supports a ban on circuses with animal acts, alleges many other cases of mistreatment. Bringas said she also supports human-only circuses to avoid animal suffering.
But Storey said giving children a chance to get close to endangered animals, such as the Asian elephants in the show, gives them a greater appreciation for nature.
"Our animals are healthy, they are beautiful, much-loved and very well cared for," she said. "There's nothing like seeing elephants up close to get an appreciation for them."
The circus' exotic animals are also part of captive-breeding programs to continue the species, Storey said. Two baby elephants will be featured in the shows.
The circus, which will set up across from Station 300 in Buckwalter Place, will have a total of four shows, at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.