A circus performing Thursday in Bluffton had elephants, clowns, tiny cars, the world's biggest cannon, dozens of eager patrons -- and about 10 animal-rights protesters.
The demonstrators held signs and handed out pamphlets while standing near the entrance to the Cole Bros. Circus, a Florida-based traveling show that stopped at Buckwalter Place.
The group's members said they were not affiliated with an organization. The pamphlets they distributed was copyrighted by Animal Defenders International and included a donation form for the group.
The protesters said they were acting to raise awareness of the circus' alleged mistreatment of its exotic animals, which include elephants, tigers and rare dog breeds.
The show has drawn complaints from animal-rights groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"We're here to inform people, to let them know what the circus is really about and let them make their own decisions," Bluffton resident Marisa Forrest-Goodrich said. "Animals aren't meant to live like this, in cages."
Cole Bros. vice president of administration Renee Storey has denied the abuse allegations and said the circus "has never been found guilty of animal abuse."
"We understand there are some people who believe animals should not be used for any reason," she said. "Our position is that we do not believe the majority of people share that belief."
Prompted by past protests along the East Coast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Cole Bros. for 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.
Last year, Bluffton resident Shanti Bringas had plans to protest the circus, but the shows were rained out.
On Thursday, she stood outside the circus tent with a papier-m"chè chain around her neck. Another demonstrator held a hand-painted sign depicting a weary elephant balancing on a ball.
None of the patrons seemed to mind.
Some took pamphlets with animal-rights information; others walked by.
Ron Fenstermaker said his two grandchildren -- 4 and 5 years old -- enjoy the show, and the protesters don't bother him.
"They have a right to their opinion," he said. "If they don't bother me, I won't bother them."
Judy Whalan, a protester who donned silver earrings shaped like elephants, said she likes circuses.
"I like clowns, trapeze acts, Cirque du Soleil," she said. "I just wish no one used animals."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.
- Local woman to organize protest of circus in Bluffton, Feb. 18, 2014: http://bit.ly/1pg7jgW
- Circus - and small animal-rights protest - coming to Bluffton, March, 23, 2013: http://bit.ly/1gXIZfh
- Animal Defenders International