Detroit — An animal-rights organization demonstrated against a traveling circus that kicked off a weeks-long stint of performances Thursday in the city.

Eight supporters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals carried signs and passed out leaflets and coloring books in protest of the first of 47 UniverSoul Circus shows at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre along Detroit's east riverfront. The group said the company has a history of "animal-welfare issues."

"Public opinion has changed," said Rachelle Owen, PETA's director of student campaigns and influence. "We're standing up against the abuse of these animals."

The organization wants to see the company eliminate animals from its acts.

The call follows New Jersey, which in December became the first state to ban wildlife traveling circus acts. Ringling Bros. Circus, once the largest in the U.S. and which used animals, shut down in 2017 from declining ticket sales. 

It appears that UniverSoul no longer is using elephants and tigers, Owen said.

"UniverSoul has incredible human acts," she said. "They should focus on that, acts that use people who can consent. Animals can't consent."

fact sheet on PETA's website lists a series of reported issues since 1997 with the company's care of its animals, including injuries to zebras, camels and tigers. Zebras escaped from the circus in Philadelphia in 2015, according to media reports.

UniverSoul did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment. A manager was unavailable at the site Thursday.

A page on its website lists the company's humanitarian work, but makes no reference to its care of animals.

"They have strobes lights and the loud music," said Nicole Martin, 36, of West Bloomfield. "The animals get scared. I would. I get emotional thinking about it."

She held a banner that said "No excuse for animal abuse." Another sign featured a sad cartoon tiger that said, "Circuses make animals sad." Another listed chains and stun guns as instruments of torture.

"They're taken across the country in these small trailers and cages," said Savanah Conrad, a 22-year-old software developer from Ann Arbor.

"They don't have the space to roam, as they're meant to in the wild," said Stefan Arambasich, 28, of Ann Arbor who also is a software developer from Ann Arbor. "They're enslaved."

Janay Miller, 30, a nursing assistant from Roseville, said she grew up going to the circus and has taken her daughter for the past three years.

"I wanted to know if they had evidence," she said. "I don't think it's cruel. The animals have to be trained."

Another woman asked why protesters were out Thursday.

"With everything that's going on in our political environment, why does it have to be the soul circus?" said Peaches Anderson, 73, of Detroit.

Similar protests have occurred at the opening night of UniverSoul shows around the country. PETA supporters say they plan to return to hand out information. The circus runs through Sept. 29 in Detroit.

Pete Siska, 63, a teacher from Redford Township who protested the Detroit Shrine Circus last year in Novi, was unmoved.

"These are cruel acts. Animals are caged, and they are whipped," he said.

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