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Top 5 Circus Controversies: Rethink Running Away with the Circus

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Beginning Thursday, Reliant Stadium will transform into a three-ringed, big-topped extravaganza. Depending on whom you speak with, this may be a good or bad thing. There is a lot to enjoy from the circus: Trapeze artists, the high wire, popcorn, glow-sticks, clowns (debatable on this one) and much more. Over the years, though, the circus has gotten a lot of bad PR. It's not surprising that one of the oldest forms of entertainment that began with the exhibition of human "freaks" might just have a few scandals under its top hats.

The circus has juggled quite a few controversies, and today, on what would have been P.T. Barnum's 201st birthday, we give you our top 5.

P.T. Barnum Barnum never shied away from the spotlight, even when it was a negative one. As the man is famed with saying that "suckers were born every minute," he certainly did his best to take advantage of them. His "human curiosity" exhibit was loaded with human deformities, albinos, giants and midgets. In one of his most fraudulent moments, Barnum started rumors that his own bearded lady was in fact a man. The rumor hit its stride and the deceptive Barnum took the facial-haired hire to court to sue her for false advertising. The bearded lady's husband took the stand and testified that she was indeed a she. Barnum used the case to seem more honest, boosting his exhibition's attendance.

Animal Abuse Whether you believe there is unethical treatment of animals or not, there are hundreds of websites blasting circuses for their conduct, with treatment of elephants climbing to the top of most lists. We found a fact-sheet charging Ringling Bros. with the deaths of 24 elephants since 1992. In 1998, Ringling Bros. settled a suit with the USDA after untimely death of Kenny, a 3-year-old elephant, who died while under the circus' care. As part of the resolution, the circus donated $20,000 to elephant-related causes.

In 1999, Carson and Barnes Circus was vilified across the Internet after the release of this video by animal rights organization PETA. Be warned, it is shocking.

Lancelot the Unicorn In the mid-1980s rumors crept through the land of a real life unicorn frolicking about California. His name was Lancelot. While skeptics claimed Lance was really a goat with a bull's horn inhumanely affixed to its head, Ringling Bros. jumped on board and featured the "unicorn" as its main attraction in 1984.

People were outraged at how fake the unicorn appeared to be, then again, were people seriously expecting a real unicorn?

Elephant Man Joseph Carey Merrick, commonly known as Elephant Man, became a human curiosity in the late 1800s. Merrick's deformity consisted of an enlargement of his lips, one arm and both of his feet. His skin thickened and a bone grew out of his head. He became a popular freak show attraction in London until circumstances forced him into the London hospital, where he died at the age of 27. There are various theories as to what his medical ailment was, but he is said to have died in an attempt to lie down to sleep like "regular people do," and the weight of his head crushed him.

If you are looking for something more depressing than that, watch David Lynch's film based on the play about Merrick's life.

The Hartford Circus Fire One of the worst disasters in circus history, the Hartford Circus Fire occurred in July of 1944 under the Ringling Bros. big top. The cause of the flames doesn't seem to be apparent, but was exacerbated by the gas and paraffin that was used to waterproof the tent. As the tent went ablaze, a crowd of several thousand attendees attempted to flee the scene. The mad dash of confusion and panic resulted in 168 deaths and 487 injuries. Sadder still was that only 100 of the casualties were over the age of 15. A number of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus top-dogs did time for the incident, but no one was ever formally charged with starting the fire.

Of course, circus controversies don't happen every day. So grab yourself a bag of peanuts and have a blast wondering how many clowns really can fit in that itty bitty car!

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be at Reliant Stadium from Thursday, July 7 through Sunday, July 24.

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