PETA's Lady in a Cage: Protesting Animal Treatment by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Lady in a cage: Erin Armstrong
Steven Mikulan

Around noon, the usual wave of frowning Hollywood Boulevard tourists, perhaps sensing they wouldn’t be bumping into Angelina Jolie at Consumers Drugs or glimpsing Will Smith at Two Guys From Italy anytime soon, milled around the intersection of Hollywood and Highland. There, they were treated to that most hallowed of Tinseltown happenings, the Media Event. Twenty-five-year-old Erin Armstrong crouched in a small wire cage in front of the Gap, a look of fearful vulnerability written on her face. She was naked — or very close to naked — her body covered by a deep orange pigment and striped to resemble a tiger. Drawn-on whiskers and fabric tiger “ears” completed the look.

“Joe, why is she all naked?” scowled one fanny pack–toting grandmother.

“I don’t know,” scowled Joe back, and the two sauntered away, casting quick frowns over their shoulders at Armstrong, who was finishing up an interview with a KFWB radio reporter. Armstrong was there as part of a protest by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The group is calling for a boycott of one of its favorite targets — the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which rolls into the Staples Center on July 16. Armstrong and PETA charge Ringling Bros with using hooked poles and other means of coercion to train its animals to perform tricks.

A knot of still and video photographers eagerly stood in front of Armstrong’s cage.

“Drink some water! Get a sip of water!” one photog called out. It was a practical suggestion — whenever Armstrong did take a water break, she had to uncoil from her tiger cage, stand on the street and set aside the small placard (“Wild Animals Don’t Belong Behind Bars”) that had been concealing her breasts.

I asked Armstrong if she had any apprehensions about the legality of being here, as a group of police officers gathered nearby, but was directed to Melissa Karpel, a PETA campaign coordinator.

“This is public property, and she’s covered up in all the right places,” Karpel said. In fact, Armstrong was wearing black panties and some sort of body-painted fabric over her nipples.

I asked Karpel if any circus has PETA’s seal of approval.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Cirque du Soleil.”

But Cirque du Soleil doesn’t have animal acts. (Actually, here Karpel had departed somewhat from the program: PETA’s circuses.com Web site urges readers to “Please urge Cirque du Soleil to replace live birds with animatronic alternatives.”)

Eventually, I was able to crouch down and speak to Armstrong, a musician who belongs to the Silver Lake band My Imaginary Friends. The lady-in-a-cage protest is a recurring event staged by PETA women, who must spend three hours having their makeup applied. This was Armstrong’s third time in the cage.

Wasn’t she, I wondered, concerned that her message was getting lost in the sensation of her passive performance?

“The nudity factor always comes up,” she said, “but you’re talking to me. You’re taking my picture while I’m holding my sign.”

She had me there.

“The thing that irks me the most,” Armstrong continued, “is that circuses are supposedly for children, but I remember being 5, 6, 7 and going to the circus and absolutely hating it because of the sad look in those animals’ eyes.”

Standing 30 feet away was sad-eyed Andy Perez. He too was irked, but by what he regarded as PETA’s disinformation. As a Ringling Bros. spokesman, part of his job is to tag after the ladies in cages and, in his view, act as a kind of truth squad to rebut PETA claims. He denied PETA’s accusations that Ringling’s animals are coerced into learning tricks. “Animals in the wild are playful,” Perez said. “All you do is add lights and music, and you’ve got a show.”

By this point, the media had drifted away to the next circus. (Larry King was scheduled to be honored at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga.) Even the sullen and curious tourists were no longer flocking around Armstrong, who suddenly looked very small and alone in her protest prison. The shock of a painted nude woman scrunched into a cage on Hollywood Boulevard had been absorbed by the passersby. They had moved on, though Armstrong would be here in the sun for a full hour. She eventually stood up, and a guy in a gorilla suit walked over to have his picture taken with her, a kind of gesture of solidarity.

Click here to see scenes from the Hollywood protest.


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