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Published:June 4th, 2006 11:08 EST
Ringling Bros. Show Tough Skin in Elephant Battle with Activists

Ringling Bros. Show Tough Skin in Elephant Battle with Activists

By Maria Grella

Elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are at the center point of a six year long court battle. The Greatest Show on Earth showcases Asian elephants as part of their performances, but if animal welfare groups get their way, the pachyderms will be removed from circus shows. The hefty animals have some heavy support on their side. Among the plaintiffs are the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Welfare Institute. They argue that unfortunately, cruelty to animals is the dark-side of circus life.

The lawsuit is seeking to cease the harmful acts, claiming that the use of chains, sharpened hooks, the separation of elephant offspring from their mothers, and other practices violate the Endangered Species Act. Advocates say that traveling chained in boxcars for up to 50 weeks and performing tricks due to force and intimidation are examples of elephant abuse, and argue that the sharpened bull-hooks often cause scarring. Animal activists believe that by prohibiting these abuses, it would force Ringling to remove the elephants from their line-up completely.

The U.S.D.A., (the United States Department of Agriculture), has also found Ringling Bros. in violation of the Animal Welfare Act multiple times, but hasn’t been able to formally charge the great show people because of preventative measures taken by Ringling. Barnum & Bailey have said that their elephants are very well treated. Up to 20 Asian elephants tour in the 3 ringed circus, with the remaining 35 living at Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation; the $5 million, 200-acre facility is located in central Florida and also serves as a retirement and breeding center.

Ringling Bros. maintain that the huge animals receive state-of-the-art treatment and they are determined to keep them in their routines. Bruce Read, a former zookeeper and Ringling Bros.’ vice president for animal stewardship stated that punishment is not used. “We train animals through reward, repetition and reinforcement,” says Read.

The Ringling Bros. circus denies these allegations and has been defending itself since 2000. Read calls the hooks used to prod the Asian elephants an accepted tool of the trade, invented over centuries to control the animals humanely. Chains are permitted by government regulations and are necessary in both keeping the animals from consuming their companions’ food, and from weight shifting on rides, which may cause the train to derail. Regarding the separation issue; baby elephants aren’t brought away from their mothers until a trainer is certain of their maturity. Read stated that the Asian elephants have been somewhat domesticated already, as they are used in ceremonies, farming, and warfare. The United States aren‘t familiar with these animals, and the circus is an opportunity given to spread the experience. “Our circus brings them to areas where people don’t see such animals very often. That’s not something we should deprive our future generations of,” says Read.

The lawsuit, which began in 2000, has had Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling’s parent company, at odds with animal activists. The plaintiffs have tried to gain access to training videos and veterinary records with no success. Attorney and vice president of the Humane Society’s animal protection litigation, Jonathan Lovvron, are expecting the trial to go forward next year. Lovvron feels the defendants have something to hide, saying, “They repeatedly claim that their elephants are healthy and well-treated, yet when we ask for documents that would prove that, they fight us tooth and nail in court.” Meanwhile, protests have called for the boycotting of circuses that feature animals. They cite productions such as Cirque du Soleil that have developed animal free shows. No major cities have yet to ban animal inclusive circuses, but fifteen U.S. municipalities have. Feld Entertainment Inc. has taken the stance that these animal rights groups are seeking publicity by targeting The Greatest Show on Earth. Opponents say it’s not about attention-seeking, but delivering the truth about animal abuse to the public. While a spokeswoman for the company says that the protests have had no impact on the decision of people to attend, critics argue that there is no evidence because Feld, a privately held company, doesn’t release revenue figures. Annual attendance is over 10 million, with audience surveys rating the pachyderms as the favorite attractions, according the Feld.