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Death Defying Protest Many Circusgoers Thought Dangling Men Part Of The Act

For some circusgoers, the two men hanging by ropes off the roof of the Spokane Arena looked like just another act.

The two men, harnessed 14 feet above the main entrance Saturday, seemed to be having a great time.

They were, in fact, animal rights protesters urging people to boycott the Ringling Brothers’ and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

The two men had what every performer loves: a large captive audience.

Below them, hundreds of parents and kids gawked. About a dozen Arena staffers gathered in groups, waiting for directions on what to do next.

A circus spokesman shook his head and said, “Heck, stay up there all day, that’s fine with us.”

The two protesters, Ben White, 44, of Friday Harbor and Mike Toutant, 34, of Coeur d’Alene, spent 90 minutes on the Arena wall. They finally came down after police threatened to charge them with the cost of using emergency crews.

The protesters said they belonged to Friends of Animals, a nationwide animal rights group.

But their message to circusgoers may have been missed in the excitement of the moment.

“You mean, they don’t like the way the animals are treated?” asked Shawna Lemke of Coeur d’Alene, walking to the entrance with her husband, Sean, and son, Dylan.

After buying tickets, she decided the protest was misguided: “This is a big company, and they couldn’t afford to abuse animals. Could they?”

Circus Communications Coordinator David Kiser tried to take the protest in stride.

“We see animals rights people from time to time. This is the first time people have hung from a wall this year,” he said.

Kiser shrugged off suggestions the two protesters had affected customers.

“I don’t see anyone walking back to their cars, do you?”

Calling from his perch, White said he and Toutant used a ladder to reach the Arena roof. They then easily walked over and rappelled down the wall nearest the Arena parking lot.

White and Toutant were both arrested and charged with trespass, then released by police.

Saturday’s protest had two goals, added Mike Toutant’s wife, Jean Jones.

One was forcing customers to consider the animal treatment issue; the second was to harass the circus, she said.

The last time Ringling Brothers came to Spokane, they threatened never to return because of the poor Coliseum conditions, Jones said.

“Now we want to discourage them from coming back at all,” she added.

The activists’ major complaint is how the circus transports animals. White said the animals in Spokane Saturday had been loaded on a train in Portland at 3 a.m., came to Spokane, then remained inside four boxcars 24 hours before walking to the Arena staging grounds.

The circus’ Kiser denied his company mistreats its animals.

They move elephants in stock cars, not boxcars. And each has keepers to make sure the animals are OK, he added.

Another group, Animal Advocates of Spokane, also took time Saturday to protest animal mistreatment. They stood outside the Arena, handing out literature at the afternoon show.

“That’s fine,” said Kiser. “That group got a permit ahead of time and it’s legal.

“Those guys,” he said, pointing to White and Toutant, “are doing this illegally.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo