By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis' decision to treat some of Rome's poor to a day at the circus has upset animal rights activists, who say his gesture toward the downtrodden involves the exploitation of nature's weakest creatures.
The Vatican said on Wednesday that the office of the pope's almoner, which manages his local charity disbursements and activities, had arranged for 2,100 people to take in a show at the Medrano Circus on Rome's outskirts.
The Vatican arranged for tickets for the Thursday afternoon performance for the poor, homeless, a group of prisoners, children of needy families, volunteers and caregivers.
"We are surprised to see the Vatican doing this," said Gaia Angelini, who heads the exotic animals division of the Italian animal protection group LAV.
She said use of animals in circuses was being phased out in many countries, including Italy, because it was now commonly accepted that keeping animals in cages and moving them from place to place was harmful.
"It is a bit surprising that a noble gesture of solidarity like this one will also involve the exploitation of the weakest, in this case, animals," she told Reuters on Wednesday.
In 2016, a court in the northern city of Padua handed down an eight-month suspended sentence to an administrator of the circus following accusations by animal rights advocates that its animals were mistreated.
Salvatore Mendola, a manager and spokesman for the circus, said the charges were denied and the case was still in the appeals process.
He told Reuters on Wednesday that the circus was now under a different administrator.
"We treat our animals very well. We have to get permission to hold shows in each city and are inspected by veterinarians before permission is given," he said.
"Our animals are super-controlled."
The Vatican said a mobile medical clinic would be on hand outside the circus tent on Thursday to treat visitors' routine health problems.
In recent years, the pope has set up places for the poor to get showers, haircuts and shaves near the Vatican. He has also offered them a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and last November hosted about 7,000 for a gourmet meal at the Vatican.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Roche)