The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, which is scheduled to make stops in Ashburn and Centreville over the next several days, has been charged under the U.S. Animal Welfare Act with mistreating its elephants. The same circus was denied a permit to appear in Alexandria in the spring.

At two separate stops last year, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported finding several elephants with wounds that they said were caused by abusive use of an ankus, a large hook often used to get the animals to obey commands. The charges were filed in April and the case is pending.

Circus officials have repeatedly denied the allegations and insist that the elephants suffered from infected hair follicles rather than abusive handlers. All their circus animals receive superior care, said Renee Storey, a vice president with Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, based in Deland, Fla.

"Circuses provide ideal environments for elephants," Storey said. "They provide behavioral enrichment and mental stimulation. Elephants like to be industrious, and a lot of their play is what we use to base tricks on."

Local animal rights groups, however, are calling on their members to boycott and protest the circus, which has become a Labor Day tradition in Centreville, in Fairfax County.

Mary Zoeter, president of the Northern Virginia-based group Action for Animals Network, said her group plans to stage peaceful demonstrations throughout the circus's three-day stay in Centreville. Instead of holding one large protest on a single day, the group hopes to maintain a steady presence at the circus with signs and possibly educational leaflets.

"This is still a very, very hard tradition to get people to look at carefully," Zoeter said. "We're not against circuses. We just don't think wild animals belong in this kind of environment."

Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus will make a two-day, four-show stop at Ashburn's Belmont Country Club today and tomorrow, and then will hold seven shows Saturday through Monday at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville. Every year, from mid-March through Thanksgiving, the circus travels up and down the East Coast, bringing its tents, animals and performers to more than a million people in 100 cities.

Joel Gaines, of Gainesville, also plans to picket Clyde Beatty-Cole's shows in Centreville. Gaines recently became active with Compassion Over Killing, a Washington-based animal rights group, and said he took it upon himself to organize a protest after he saw signs advertising the circus.

He doesn't know if he can round up enough people to picket the Ashburn shows as well, but he'll keep trying, he said. "These animals perform out of fear," Gaines said. "I don't think anyone is aware of that."

Dealing with protesters is something the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus has gotten used to over the years, especially in Northern Virginia. Six months ago, when circus officials applied for a permit to bring the show to Alexandria, animal activists showed up at a meeting of the City Council, which denied the permit.

The protesters cited three incidents in particular: In 1995, two Clyde Beatty elephants went on a rampage in Queens, N.Y., injuring a dozen people and hospitalizing six; circus officials said they got rid of those elephants. In 1993, a man was stomped to death at a Clyde Beatty show; circus officials said the man was drunk and trespassed into the elephant's cage. They said a woman who was found dead in an elephant's cage in 1985 may have been beaten by her boyfriend and placed in the cage.

Animal activists in Southampton, N.Y., tried to keep Clyde Beatty out of the town in July, gathering 800 signatures on a petition that failed to the sway the town board.

But the protests haven't driven away the crowds. Attendance at Clyde Beatty shows is growing, Storey said.

"That demonstrates that the public has confidence in what we're doing," she said. "It's a reflection of public demand for wholesome family entertainment."

That's the way Carl Bly feels about Clyde Beatty's annual visit to his town. Every year, the circus helps raise about $12,000 for Centreville High School's marching band. Bly, the school's band director, brought the circus to Centreville in 1992 because he knew it would be a great fund-raiser that the whole family could attend.

He receives a few calls every year from animal activists who try to persuade him to stop sponsoring the circus. But he says he has never seen Clyde Beatty animals being abused and can't imagine how anyone who owns an expensive elephant would willfully abuse it.

"I see these people yearly, and I know that they're working hard to take care of the animals well," Bly said. "As long as it's successful, it'll continue."

CAPTION: The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus is set to hold four shows in Ashburn and seven in Centreville.