updated 8/9/2004 11:50:57 AM ET 2004-08-09T15:50:57

Fifteen-year-old Heather Herman, who wears leather and eats meat, is an unlikely animal rights activist. Yet largely due to her, Denver voters will decide this week whether to allow the circus to come to town.

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Herman contends the animals aren’t meant to travel the country caged or in train cars, performing for audiences on cue. Her push to petition for a law ensuring abuse-free circuses rather than just passing out leaflets took some supporters by surprise.

“I guess you get jaded when you get older,” said Ashley Soard, formerly of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense and now with Denver for Cruelty-Free Circuses. “Her enthusiasm was contagious.”

Herman, a high school sophomore, said she attended circuses as a child but recently became concerned about the treatment of animals. She created a group, Youth Opposed to Animal Acts, started a petition and collected enough signatures to put the question on Tuesday’s ballot.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been performing in Denver since 1919, and the city’s Barnum neighborhood is named after circus founder P.T. Barnum, who bought 760 acres here in 1882 as a winter respite for his show.

Numerous lawsuits
The circus has found itself the repeated target of lawsuits and criticism from animal rights groups. The circus’ parent company, Feld Entertainment, maintains Herman’s initiative would strip the heart of its shows, and that notions of mistreatment of animals are misguided.

“We’ve certainly been a favorite target of the animal rights crowd,” said Tom Albert, vice president of government relations for Feld.

Herman and about 30 to 50 volunteers have raised close to $47,000 from the likes of the U.S. Humane Society and have earned an endorsement from wildlife biologist Jane Goodall.

Meanwhile, Feld Entertainment has donated $175,000 to the Keep the Circus in Denver Committee to oppose her. The committee includes City Council members, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and others.

“I had no idea it would be this controversial,” Herman said from her mother’s home, where campaign signs are stacked in the living room. She dropped band last year so she could focus on campaigning.

Herman’s proposal would allow educational exhibits like the Denver Zoo and the National Western Stock Show, but stock show CEO Pat Grant still opposes the measure, saying the circus is wholesome family entertainment. He said that if the circus goes, the stock show will be next.

“That’s crazy,” said Herman. “There’s a big difference between traveling animals and having a permanent facility. If animals are going to be in captivity, humans should strive to give animals a habitat that’s more like their native ones.”

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