When Ringling Bros. comes to town, it's always a three-ring circus.

And that's just the parking lot.

On Wednesday, animal-rights activists will be corralled in the North Charleston Coliseum's "free speech zones" to protest our annual visit from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Wednesday night is the first of eight Lowcountry performances of this year's edition of "the greatest show on Earth."

But the folks who will be outside say this isn't a great show, it's a house of horrors.

For the past week, people from around the country have bombarded local media with forwarded emails from PETA, trying to draw attention to what it says are the atrocities of circus life for the animals that perform in them.

Mostly, they have provided Ringling Bros. with a lot of free publicity.

The activists say these large animals were not built to travel, are treated cruelly during training and live a life of bondage. One of the emails notes that "bears, elephants, tigers, lions and other animals do not voluntarily ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire."

Huh. Who would have guessed?

Of course, maybe elephants and tigers can't ride bikes in India because they don't have city officials there willing to shut down entire lanes of traffic for them.

In the center ring

The big controversy with circuses right now is the elephants, and there is little gray area.

Animal-rights advocates say the pachyderms are abused, kept in chains and hurt by trainers using devices called bullhooks to keep them in line. And they say Ringling Bros. has paid the largest fines in history for violations related to this sort of abuse.

Ringling Bros. says the claims are distorted, taken out of context and completely misleading. Circus officials say they paid a negotiated settlement with the USDA over charges of animal mistreatment, but that doesn't mean they agreed with allegations or admitted to violations.

They just had to pay the ticket because the USDA is their licensing agency.

Circus folks say a bullhook - which could probably do some serious damage to a clown - does not hurt the tough hide of an elephant, and is a legal training tool. Ultimately, they say, you don't make an 8,000-pound animal do anything it doesn't want to do.

Circus folks will tell you that animal-rights activists, well-meaning as they may be, do not understand these large animals and the people who care for them.

It's true that a lot of the animal trainers you see in circuses are second- or third-generation performers who devote their lives to these animals. And they don't do it because they are getting rich.

"You don't spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with these animals if you don't like them," says Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. "There are easier ways to make a living."

That's true.

Ringling Bros. says it educates folks about these animals, has researchers finding cures for the diseases that ail them and helps foreign nations manage their population of elephants and the like. They say part of the money collected from every ticket funds these activities.

As you might expect, animal-rights advocates are unmoved by this.

A tradition

The folks at PETA often do as much harm as good with their over-the-top antics.

Some of these people will tell you it is akin to slavery to own a pet when, in fact, anyone with a dog or cat will tell you who in that relationship is really the indentured servant.

These people argue that all animals should be free. Except maybe on Sullivan's Island.

There is a real divide in the world of animal advocacy. But they are all pretty much on the same page when it comes to the circus.

Mainstream organizations like the Charleston Animal Society do not support the circus, saying that a better, more educational way to view animals is in a zoo. Or to adopt a pet, of course.

That's true. But the circus is also an American tradition, a bit of good old-fashioned fun that has been around since the middle of the 19th century.

Animal-rights folks have every right to protest, and bravo to the coliseum for giving them a stage. But these folks need to remember that they'll get more love for bears with honey than vinegar. Constantly attacking the circus isn't working. Because people love the circus.

And for all those people who will step right up tonight, this protest is nothing but a sideshow.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com