The protests have become a circus tradition in their own right.

Animal rights activists show up outside circus venues to condemn what they consider to be inhumane treatment of exotic animals by traveling circuses.

Circus personnel, meanwhile, usher in ticket holders more than an hour before the show so they can get up close to the animals and decide for themselves.

This dual routine -- along with the continuing debate over who is the better defender of captive exotic animals -- is playing out in Bakersfield again this week with the arrival of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Animal Defenders International said it has prepared for Ringling's visit by taking out five billboards in Bakersfield urging an end to the animals' suffering.

The nonprofit's campaigns director, Matt Rossell, said the intent of the billboards and the 6 p.m. Thursday protest set for outside the Rabobank Arena is to educate families so they can make an informed decision on whether to support the circus.

Circus-goers "don't think of what happens after the animals leave the ring and what their life is like," he said.

The circus industry sees these protests as well-meaning but wrongheaded.

"It doesn't really impact the show or the performance or the fact that people do want to come and see exotic animals and performing animals in circuses, and our research has proved that," said Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, which represents carnivals, circuses and other mobile amusements.

Clashes between the two sides occasionally flare into a new municipal ordinance or the release of an undercover video of behind-the scenes circus operations.

But for the most part, the position of each side has changed little in recent years, though some circuses have phased out their use of animal performers.

Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.' Virginia-based owner, maintains that it is among the world's biggest advocates for Asian elephants, an endangered species that have become a star of many circuses.

Ringling's director of animal stewardship, Janice Aria, said that not only is the company a major sponsor of elephant health research, but without circuses the Asian elephant would likely become extinct.

Also, only about a third of the company's elephants perform, she said. The rest spend their time at a 200-acre breeding and retirement facility Feld operates in central Florida.

"If they don't thrive in that (circus) environment, we have an alternative for them," Aria said. "But why deny them the chance to (live the circus lifestyle)?"

That's not the way Animal Defenders International and groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals see the issue.

They maintain that circus elephants are highly intelligent creatures whose physical and psychological needs go unmet during traveling schedules extending as much as 50 weeks a year.

These groups point to circuses' use of spiked sticks and electric shock equipment as evidence that elephants in particular are unsuited to a captive life on the road.

"We are in the 21st century," said Virginia Fort, senior campaigner at PETA. "We shouldn't be torturing animals in the name of entertainment."

Some three dozen municipal governments have adopted some form of regulation protecting circus animals.

In 2004, for instance, the Santa Ana City Council acted on an animal rights group's recommendation and voted unanimously to ban circuses or carnivals from keeping or displaying wild or exotic animals.

Pasadena adopted a similar ordinance in 2001 that also banned rodeos within city limits.

Animal rights organizations say the debate is turning in their favor. They cite the success of Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based troupe that employs human acrobats and other performers of circus arts -- but no animals.

Ontario-based Circus Vargas and a few other traveling shows have ended their involvement with performing animals, which can be expensive to feed, care for and transport. A Circus Vargas representative declined to comment for this story.

Others who work with traveling exotic animals have refused to back down, saying they know animals better than activists who generally play to people's emotions rather than their reason.

One such group is coming later this month to the Kern County Fair. Have Trunk Will Travel puts on special events that may include elephant rides. As such, the organization deals with its share of protests.

Co-owners Kari and Gary Johnson wrote in an email this week that the circus pays to support elephant symposiums and research no other organization could afford.

"We are intimately familiar with the animal rights groups' tactics, since they use the same ones against us," the Johnsons wrote. "Our elephants are loved and well-cared for, and we believe Ringlings' (animals) are, too."