SHERIDAN — As a steady rain fell over the county fairgrounds Thursday evening, a pair of concerned Sheridan residents stood ankle deep in mud distributing fliers to hurried crowds as they rushed for cover from the elements.
While most had descended on the area to attend the final local performance of the Carson and Barnes Circus, Rachael Petsoff and Linda Brenneman were there to call attention to allegations of animal abuse by the company.
“I came out to support animals because they can’t talk (for themselves),” Petsoff said. “If anybody abused my child like that, I’d be livid.”
In the days leading up to the circus, a video posted by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals appearing to show a Carson and Barnes trainer using blowtorches and electric prods on elephants was widely circulated on several Sheridan-area Facebook pages.
Heated exchanges followed, but Petsoff and Brenneman said they weren’t interested in judging those who decided to attend the event.
Rather, they hoped to encourage people to consider whether animal acts such as circuses are ever a humane form of entertainment.
“We’re not pressuring anybody,” Petsoff said.
While a handful of people made a point of destroying the pamphlets and throwing them in the mud, most quickly accepted the literature before continuing inside.
In regards to those select few who made no secret of their distaste for Petsoff and Brenneman’s message, Petsoff said they had been anticipating a certain level of backlash.
“What can you do?” she asked.
Last night’s performances were sponsored locally by the Sheridan Jaycees — a nonprofit organization of 18- to 40-year-olds who volunteer their time to host community events.
Earlier this week, Jaycees President Michelle Edwards responded to criticism of the circus on Facebook, saying the group had been unaware the abuse allegations when approached as a potential sponsor.
Edwards went on to write that the Jaycees involvement — far from being an approval of animal abuse — was an attempt to leverage the event for the benefit of the Sheridan community.
“Regardless of whether or not (the circus) secured a sponsoring organization, they still planned to come to Sheridan,” she wrote. “If they don’t have a local sponsor, the circus company comes in and out of town, only taking money from the attendees of the circus, not giving any back to the community.”
Edwards cited other philanthropic events hosted by the Jaycees as evidence of their commitment to bettering the community.
Still, some said that while they couldn’t fault the Jaycees for their initial involvement, they were disappointed that the group stood behind the event following the allegations of abuse.
“I’m very disheartened that now that they know this is going on behind the scenes, they’re continuing to go along with it,” Brenneman said.
In response to criticism of her organization, Carson and Barnes owner Barbara Byrd said the video that generated the criticism was 15 years old and that the circus maintains high standards of animal treatment.
“It’s all coming from radicals who don’t believe we should have any connection with animals,” she said of the criticism. “They have a very extreme agenda that I don’t think the average American really understands or agrees with.”
More than 500 people attended the performances based on early estimates by the Jaycees.