On the Other Tightrope

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

In the minefield of contemporary parenting -- where the developmental impact of hard-soled shoes, peanut butter and tiaras are debated passionately -- one alleged no-no this time of year strikes at the core of a quintessential childhood experience.

The circus.

Cotton candy! Popcorn! Clowns!

Ethical quagmires!

"Don't tell me they're messing with the elephants. That's terrible," said Dre Jones of the District, as he accepted a flier from an animal rights activist outside the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus show at Verizon Center on Thursday night. It was his son Cory's second birthday.

"I mean, it's the circus, you know? That's good for kids," he said. "But if they're messing with the elephants, man. Those are the strongest, biggest creatures in the jungle. You don't mess with those."

Each year, as the circus comes to town, parents who aren't particularly fanatical on either end of the animal rights spectrum are faced with the dilemma of how deeply they want to take their parenting philosophies when it comes to Dumbo.

"It's tough. A circus can be a wonderful thing. But I struggle," said McLean resident Carol Brunner, who walked a tightrope of self-flagellation and rationalization as she waited outside the circus with her 7- and 9-year-old kids.

"I know, I know. I'm a hypocrite because I know there's a problem with having animals perform," said Brunner, as she watched her kids leaf through coloring books handed to them by animal rights activists wearing elephant masks, prison stripes and shackles outside the main entrance.

"I think they understand the issues. We're going to talk about making choices," she said. "I told them we should write letters."

The two-hour show was dazzling: sequined trapeze artists flying through the air, a gilded lady flash-banging from the mouth of a cannon, clowns tumbling past. And the elephants, 10 mighty pachyderms with trunks in the air, sitting on king-size stools like giant, wrinkly toddlers.

"The circus is for the kids, and they love it," said Aisha Kearney of Landover, who brought her 2-year-old daughter to the show last week. "I remember when I was little, I rode on the elephants. That was real cool. But they don't let you ride on them anymore."

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