There’s an elephant in the room — three, actually — at the St. Paul Osman Shrine Circus. The 93-year-old show, running this weekend on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, continues to exhibit exotic animals, even as larger circuses are phasing out their pachyderm performers.

After years of pressure from animal welfare activists, the big cats and elephant acts are facing an uncertain future. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey plans to retire the last of its elephants next month. Dozens of municipalities in recent years have banned the use of exotic animals in the circuses that pass through town. Handlers, who have to keep up with tightening restrictions and ballooning paperwork, are leaving the business. And circus producers admit uncertainty about the future of animals in their shows.

But the show goes on at the Osman Shrine Circus, a fundraiser for the local Shriner fraternity. Animals, says spokesman Jim Berg, are one of the biggest draws to the annual event, which raises a majority of the club’s funds for the year.

“People call and ask, ‘Will you have the elephants?’ The animals are what make it the true American circus,” Berg said.

Activists, however, claim the methods used to train exotic animals are abusive, and that their living conditions are inhumane.

“Captivity just couldn’t be worse for elephants and tigers,” said Rachel Mathews, counsel for the Captive Animal Law Enforcement division for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation. “Abuse has no place at a family-friendly event like a Shrine Circus.”

With Ringling’s decision, as well as SeaWorld’s recent announcement that it would end its orca breeding program, Mathews says attitudes have changed enough that animal-free circuses could be the way of the future.

“Ringling is simply the first domino to fall, and the writing is on the wall that people don’t want to see animals used in the circus,” she said. “Human performers are the true star of the show, and the show is absolutely going to go on without animals.”

Those in the industry acknowledge the power of public opinion.

“We’re losing the battle,” said James Hamid of New Jersey-based Hamid Circus Inc., producer of the Osman Shrine Circus. “And it’s just a PR battle we’re losing, because when people come in and actually see the animals and how well cared for they are, it changes your opinion.”

Seals and chimpanzees have already vanished from circuses, and there are only a couple of dog acts and bear acts left in the country.

For those who have devoted their lives to the circus, a show without animals is inauthentic, even sad.

“People complain that circuses are antiquated and want to do away with animals entirely, which is ridiculous,” said Peter Sturgis, who is in his 36th year as a ringmaster. “Animals are the circus. [Without them], we’d be in a very sad state of affairs.”

A fading tradition

The handlers working the show insist their animals are cared for according to code, even as those codes get stricter.

On the fairgrounds, a long, white trailer divided into cages is the mobile home of two tigers, two lions and a lioness. They were born in captivity; Mofasa, an African lion with a grand mane, was the size of a “stuffed animal” when sixth-generation trainer Vincent Von Duke bought him for $300 eight years ago. Von Duke bottle-fed the lion.

“Basically, we’re like farmers, with 10 minutes of glamour a day,” Von Duke said. “These are not wild animals.”

The animals are housed during the circus in the Cattle Barn. The elephants, which go on last in the show, stay in a white tent with hay covering the floor, an electric heater recreating the warmth of the tropics they were born in.

Brian Franzen, their owner, says his is one of around 15 elephant acts still in operation, not including Ringling. One of his charges, Ellie, is older than he is; his father, Wayne, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who loved exotic animals, bought her. (Wayne Franzen was killed during a tiger act in 1997.)

Franzen has long been a target of activists; PETA has a fact sheet on him that lists years of animal welfare complaints. Though he lightheartedly refers to circus protesters as “my friends who gather out there with the signs,” their allegations against him of abuse, he says, are “slander and it’s not true.”

About an hour before the first St. Paul show Thursday morning, dozens of kids lined up for rides on a live pony merry-go-round, and on one of two elephants, for $10.

Becky Jelinek of Menomonie, Wis., took her children, Annabelle, 2, and Charlie, 5, for a ride on Patty the elephant. She is aware of the controversy over animal abuse at other circuses.

“If I heard anything about that [here], then I probably wouldn’t go,” she said.

But if animals were banned altogether? “It doesn’t mean the worst thing,” she said. “The circus is still the circus.”