Backstage at the Ringling Bros. Circus at Nassau Coliseum. (March...

Backstage at the Ringling Bros. Circus at Nassau Coliseum. (March 22, 2012) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

St. Martin de Porres Marianist School's "Zoo Crew" of fifth-graders don't handle tigers or lions. But they were able to get a firsthand look at how it's done at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Thursday.

First- and fifth-grade students from the Uniondale school, including the Zoo Crew, were invited to see the show at the Nassau Coliseum and then a training demonstration with the big cats and their trainer.

Andrea Smith, 10, a member of the Zoo Crew, said she loves taking care of the animals at her school and learned a lot from the circus. "If you give an animal something they like, they'll listen to you," she said.

Kathleen Anzalone, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Martin's and organizer of the Zoo Crew, said the program helps students learn responsibility.

"We've been trying to instill in them that it's a commitment," she said. "So this is perfect because they get to see the animals in action."

The program, which is a few years old, consists of 35 students who take time, once a week, during their lunch period to care for animals including doves, fish and hamsters. The animals remain at the school day and night during the school year. While they could be outside playing with friends, students such as 10-year-old Cara McGlone likes tending the animals. "It's fun to take care of them and pet the birds when we have our gloves on and pet the tortoise," she said.

Alexander Lacey, Ringling's big cats trainer, taught the children about lions and tigers and how they're trained during a demonstration in which the animals jumped across ledges and reacted to Lacey's commands, given via wood sticks banged together.

Originally from England, Lacey has been in the business for 19 years and has been with Ringling since November. "I want people to walk away from this show and realize how intelligent the animals are and how beautiful they are," Lacey said.

Still, the circus and its use of animals are not without critics. The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims Ringling and other circuses abuse animals by corralling them and using them for entertainment. They say some are beaten and injured during training.

Activists, such as actors Alec Baldwin and Jada Pinkett Smith, have called for boycotts of "The Greatest Show On Earth."

The 104-year-old circus denies it abuses animals and Lacey said he has had no complaints. He said his cats are treated well.

Lacey, whose parents also breed and train big cats and have performed in circuses, told the children it takes a lot of hard work to care for animals. "Unless you really love it, you can't do it properly," he said.

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