Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus apparently is through clowning around with PETA.

In a PR campaign of jumbo-sized proportions, the world's best-known circus is charging head-on into a fight with the most vocal animal-rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Ringling Bros., in a series of full-page ads in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, has turned the tables on publicity-savvy PETA, implying that it was using its money on frivolous, sex-laden campaigns while the real work of saving animals was being done through programs like the circus's own elephant-conservation center.

The circus' ad also takes PETA to task for allegedly killing half as many pets as it rescues. Ringling Bros. claims that in 1999, PETA "confiscated 2,103 pets and killed 1,325 of them."

The advertisement will probably run in other publications, but the date and venues are not yet certain, said Ringling spokeswoman Barbara Pflughaupt.

The fight isn't peanuts to PETA, which is adding to what could turn into a media ... circus ... with a slashing riposte.

"Besides the fact that the ad is riddled with inaccuracies, it seems to us to be a way to attack a messenger to distract from the message, which is that circuses abuse animals," said PETA spokeswoman Debbie Leahy. PETA does not confiscate animals, she said, but accepts donated animals that are old, irretrievably injured or otherwise unadoptable and arranges for them to be "humanely euthanized."

Ringling's ads come after a highly publicized San Jose, Calif., animal-cruelty trial in which a Ringling animal trainer was charged with physically abusing a circus elephant with the sharp end of a bullhook. He was found innocent in late December of the misdemeanor charge, but animal-rights groups used the case as a springboard to publicize what they see as the cruelty of circuses.

The ad, Pflughaupt said, is meant to counter animal-group propaganda that made the rounds during the trial.

Ringling's open letter accuses PETA of wasting millions of donated dollars on famously sexy media campaigns — billboard ads with nude celebrities declaring they'd rather go naked than wear fur — and on the legal defense of terrorist organizations like the Animal Liberation Front.

Signed by circus chairman Kenneth Feld, the letter goes on to attack what it claims is the PETA goal of reintroducing endangered animals into the wild. The right way to save endangered species, the letter argues, is to maintain breeding and conservation programs so that rare animals like Asian elephants will be around for future generations of human beings to know, care for and work and play with — much as Ringling does.

Pflughaupt said the ad was meant to shine the spotlight on PETA and let the American public decide whether the non-profit organization is worthy of its support and dollars.

"After Sept. 11, in a sour economy and charity money tighter than ever, you need to consider where your donation money goes," she said.

PETA, she said, seems to spend less money housing or caring for animals than it does on sexually-titillating media blitzes.

"Does the money you donate to them go to airfare and advertising with naked spokespeople that targets responsible animal caretakers?" Pflughaupt said. "Or do they use them in the care of animals? Do they support shelters? Do they feed animals? Over and over again, they refuse to answer those questions and instead turn it around and make the same accusations they've made (against us) for the last 20 years."