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Elephants nose in on Nathan’s hot dog contest

They’ve proven they can eat like pigs, but can three competitive eaters ingest like elephants?

On July 3, the answer to the cross−species conundrum will be revealed as Juliet Lee, Gravy Brown and Patrick Bertoletti test their chops against three Asian elephants named Bunny, Susie and Minnie — a collective nine tons of pachyderm — at a hot dog bun eating contest in Coney Island.

The fully sanctioned six−minute starchfest, sponsored by Major League Eating and Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, takes place a day before Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, the annual all−human gustatory marvel.

George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating, the governing body of competitive eating, said much is at stake between man and beast.

“You have a situation here where if the elephants win, it’s a major boost to their status in the animal kingdom,” Shea said. “And it will diminish our species if we lose.”

Shea said the contest, scheduled for 11 a.m. at The Coney Island Boom A Ring, may come down to brute force, as opposed to delicate technique. While human competitive eaters will often dunk a hot dog bun in water to ease its passage, elephants will most likely have no need to employ this technique. “They have the advantage of a wide esophagus,” Shea reasoned.

Lee, 43, a 105−lb mother from Maryland, expressed a confidence typical of her species. “I can eat 12.6 percent of my body weight in eight minutes and I do not anticipate any difficulty eating more food than the elephants will in a head−to−head match,” she boasted in a statement. Collectively, the human trio weigh just under 500 pounds.

In almost all important competitive eating categories— jaw strength and stomach capacity being two — elephants have a decided edge, Shea said. Still, he continued, humans — even competitive eating humans — most likely have an intellectual edge.

“It is possible that the elephants won’t even realize this is a contest,” he said.

An animal rights group sees no sport in the event, blasting it as inane and inhumane.

“To us this is just another example of how Ringling regards its elephants, as little more than sideshow freaks, rather than the intelligent, sensitive animals they are,” said RaeLeann Smith, the circus and government affairs specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “In their native habits, elephants would be foraging on a variety of fresh vegetation, not consuming hot dog buns in a sweltering New York City parking lot.”

Paulina Piekarski, a Ringling spokesperson, said the elephants will be eating a variety of foods during the contest, which will serve as a free educative experience for onlookers. The contest will take place in the “animal’s open house compound,” she noted, and the beasts would be under the care of their trainer. “We wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t the opportunity to talk to the public about the care they receive.” Shea said the experience will be nothing more than another meal for the massive animals. “Personally, I don’t know how one could be upset about this,” Shea said. “It is essentially just lunch for the elephants.” He stressed that in the contest, only the buns consumed would be counted — not the apples, carrots or whatever else the creatures stuff in their gullets.

On July 4th, the all−human battle will feature two−time winner Joey Chestnut and six−time champ, Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi. Last year, Chestnut and Kobayashi each ate a head−scratching — and intestine decimating — 59 hotdogs in the 10−minute affair. In overtime, Chestnut, a wiry Californian, gobbled five hot dogs in 50 seconds, toppling the Japanese legend.

This year, the event, which will take place at noon and be televised live on ESPN, will feature a jumbo television monitor, enabling the throngs who descend to the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues a clear view of the athletes.

Shea said dark horse competitors include Tim “Eater X” Janus, who recently downed 50 dogs at a qualifying event, as well as the always tough Bertoletti.

Kobayashi, who recently conquered Chestnut in a pizza eating contest, is ready to reclaim the Coveted Mustard Yellow Belt, as well as a bit of eikou, or “glory,” in Japanese.

“His bowel is coiled like a serpent, ready to strike,” Shea said.

Back in 2003, the FOX television special “Man vs. Beast” pitted Kobayashi against a 1089−lb Kodiak bear. The bear demolished the Japanese national hero, devouring 50 bun−less hotdogs in 2 minutes 26 seconds, to Kobayashi’s insufficient 31.

“That was a black eye for our species,” Shea conceded.

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