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Your memories of the circus may be innocent, but UCF grad Bryan Wilson says the "cruelest show on earth" is anything but.

"The circus tries to create a fantasy," he said. "In reality, these animals suffer routine physical and psychological abuse."

As coordinators for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, a nonprofit activist group, Bryan and his wife Carla can be seen around Orlando almost every weekend protesting for animal rights.

However, Stephen Payne, vice president of Corporate Communications for Ringling Bros., says protests against the circus are unnecessary.

"I've told protestors they are entitled to their own opinion," Payne said. "We at Ringling Bros. genuinely care about animals, and I know the protestors do, too. We focus on animal welfare, while they focus on animal rights."

Bryan and Carla do everything from organizing rallies, getting permits and setting up demonstrations.

"It's great because our job as coordinators is not behind the scenes, just doing paperwork and covering expenses," Bryan said. "We get to be in the action with all the volunteers, helping get the word out that animals don't belong in cages."

The ARFF protests in front of Sea World a few times each month, as well as in front of puppy mills every Friday. It recently hosted one of its bigger protests of the year against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in early January. The circus protest was four days long, with ARFF volunteers speaking to the public right in front of the Amway Center. The hundreds of protestors ranged in age, from toddlers to people in their 70s.

"We've got people that take their 6-year-olds protesting, and people protesting pregnant," Bryan said. "These people have such passion, they drive from Daytona Beach or Melbourne to protest the circus with us."

When some people think of protests, they may think of angry mobs, but the ARFF takes a different approach through teaching.

"Our protests are very calm," Bryan said. "We meet up with the police beforehand, we know our first amendment rights. We have no need to break a law, for we want to inspire people to care about animal rights, not force them."

While Bryan was busy studying computer science at UCF in the 90s, he never dreamed of living an activist life.

"In 1996, Carla and I saw an advertisement for a pig-jumping event on TV," Bryan said. "We both thought this isn't right, so we called the station, and from them we heard about ARFF."

Even though Bryan and Carla grew up on farms with meat and potatoes for dinner, they both have early memories of showing animals compassion.

"My older brothers would go fishing a lot," Carla said. "One night I snuck the fish out of the freezer and put them in a doll crib. I wanted to protect them."

They have now both enjoyed a vegan lifestyle for almost 20 years, while fighting the battle they said is an ongoing one.

"Nobody says, 'You won,'" Bryan said. "Every person not buying tickets to any animal performance event, or deciding to leave one is a small victory for us. We've come a long way by taking it one day at a time, and we're going to go a lot further."

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Gina Avile is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.

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