PAXTON — As the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus rolled through the area — Paxton on Monday, then two shows in Homer on Tuesday night — a group of protesters put on a show of their own.
At Coady Park on Monday evening were a dozen people holding signs with phrases such as "Enjoy the show, the animals won't," "Whipped for your entertainment," "Trained with pain," "Caged and enraged" and "Stop supporting slavery."
The peaceful protest was organized "the second" that Paxton resident Emily Gibson learned that the circus was coming to town.
"God did not create these animals for our entertainment," Gibson said. "There's a much bigger purpose for them, and I can't figure out how it's entertaining to someone to see them in such an unnatural habitat when we know there's a much bigger purpose in life for them."
But circus clown Leo Acton, in his first season with Culpepper & Merriweather, said the animals the circus uses — including mixed ponies and horses, American Eskimo dogs, two golden tabby tigers and a male black-maned African lion — "are some of the happiest, healthiest animals I've ever seen."
Donna Mansfield — who expected to be appointed to the Paxton Park District's board of commissioners the following day — said she was at the park district-sponsored circus "all day" watching everything.
"The animals are fine," Mansfield said. "They're spoiled, and they're very well taken care of. They're being watered, and they're being taken care of perfectly. ... Even the tigers and lions, they are very spoiled. The (trainer) would put his face up on the cage and the female tiger would just rub all against that cage, like a kitten."
Trey Key, general manager for the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, released a statement addressing the six-month suspension of the circus' USDA license in 2012. The circus faced 12 charges from the USDA related to the escape of two elephants and their veterinary care in Kansas in 2008. An additional four charges were related to a female tiger giving birth to three cubs without the circus knowing the tiger was pregnant.
"In all, there were 16 charges filed against Culpepper & Merriweather Circus by the USDA, and 12 were dismissed by the judge hearing the case," Key said in the statement.
Said picketer Tyger McClure: "We are here to say, 'Bring a circus; bring fun to town, but make sure it's a circus that doesn't have wild animals because there's no need for that. You can be entertained in so many other different ways — with people who have free will. Acrobats, they join the circus because they love to perform. But lions and tigers don't have free will."