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Ringling Brothers Will Stand Trial for Elephant Abuse

WASHINGTON (Aug. 23, 2007 Animal Welfare Institute) Today, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the federal district court in Washington D.C. issued a major ruling rejecting the last-ditch attempt of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to avoid trial over charges that the circus abuses its Asian elephants in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The groundbreaking lawsuit, brought by the Animal Welfare Institute, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute, and Tom Rider, a former employee of Ringling Bros., alleges that the circus violates the Endangered Species Act by abusively training and disciplining elephants with sharp implements such as bullhooks, by intensively confining and chaining the multi-ton animals for prolonged periods, and by forcibly separating baby elephants from their mothers.

“The ASPCA is delighted with today’s ruling, which paves the way for the real case at hand: whether Ringling Brothers violated the Endangered Species Act in its treatment of the elephants,” stated ASPCA Senior Vice President Lisa Weisberg.

In its ruling, the Court scolded the circus for “wast[ing] a considerable amount of time and resources” of the Court and the groups by engaging in “dilatory” delay tactics over several years. The Court had previously ruled and today reiterated that the circus had repeatedly withheld critical evidence, in violation of a Court order.

“After five years of legal wrangling, we look forward to unveiling the curtain at trial to expose the suffering and death of elephants at the hands of the so-called ‘Greatest Show on Earth,’” said Tracy Silverman, General Counsel for the Animal Welfare Institute. “These magnificent animals will finally have their day in Court.”

In today’s ruling, the Court also recognized the important “public policy in favor of protecting the animals from unlawful harassment or harm.” The Court further admonished that “promoting the public interest in the preservation of such species will remain an ever-present threat to those seeking to unlawfully harm such species."

“Today’s strongly worded decision shows that the Court has run out of patience for Ringling Brothers’ stalling ploys,” said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. “This trial will come not a moment too soon, as Ringling’s elephants continue to suffer every day from abusive discipline and prolonged chaining.”

The Court also rejected Ringling’s attempt to interject baseless counterclaims against the plaintiffs, and to harass the plaintiffs with discovery on irrelevant issues.  The Court ordered all further discovery to be completed by the end of the year, and a trial date is expected soon.

“We’re excited to move forward with this case and hope the spotlight continues to shine on the use of inhumane chains and bullhooks and Ringling’s cruel behind-the-scenes treatment of elephants,” said Nicole Paquette, General Counsel and Director of Legal Affairs at the Animal Protection Institute.

The plaintiffs are represented by the public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.


  • Witnesses and former circus employees have given sworn testimony to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as recently as October 2006, that behind the scenes at circuses, elephants are kept tightly chained by one front and hind leg and unable to move freely. In the wild, elephants travel many miles each day. There are reports of circus elephants being confined this way up to 20 hours or more each day. Research shows that this leads to psychological and physical problems such as arthritis, crippling foot problems, and behavior that is indicative of high levels of stress.
  • As recently as July 2006, undercover investigators have videotaped trainers beating elephants, contrary to statements that the animals are trained exclusively through positive reinforcement. The lawsuit alleges that trainers use a stick with a sharpened metal hook on the end (called a "bullhook" or "ankus") to repeatedly beat, pull, push, torment and threaten elephants.
  • In a January 2005 e-mail, Ringling's own "Animal Behaviorist" recounted to Ringling's General Manager that she saw an elephant named Lutzi "dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show from being hooked," after a handler "hook[ed] Lutzi under the trunk three times and behind the leg once in an attempt to line her up for the T-mount." A "T-mount" is a stunt where two elephants and at least one person stand on the back of a kneeling elephant.


August 23, 2007 – U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan issues a ruling rejecting Ringling Brothers’ attempts to have the case dismissed, and permitting the plaintiffs’ case to proceed to trial.

October 2006 – In response to a court order, Ringling discloses its own internal veterinary records revealing severe abuse at the hands of Ringling's elephant handlers.

September 2005 – The federal district judge assigned to the case announces that he will "incarcerat[e]" Ringling's lawyers and executives if they do not turn over critical veterinary documents that were required to be produced much earlier in the litigation.

February 2003 – A unanimous panel of the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia finds that the plaintiffs have standing to sue Ringling Brothers for its mistreatment of Asian elephants.

June 2000 – Animal welfare groups file suit against Ringling Brothers in federal court in the District of Columbia under the Endangered Species Act to stop Ringling's inhumane and unlawful mistreatment of highly endangered Asian elephants.

July 1999 – Baby elephant Benjamin drowns in a pond when traveling between Ringling shows; witnesses state that he was evading his Ringling handler who had chased him with a bullhook.

February 1999 – USDA cites Ringling after inspectors observe large rope burn "lesions" on two baby elephants – Doc and Angelica – caused by forcibly separating the babies from their mothers well before the end of their natural weaning period.

January 1998 – USDA concludes that baby elephant Kenny dies after being made to perform by Ringling despite the fact that he was extremely ill.

I-Team: Circus Lawsuit Moves Forward

June 17, 2008 George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter, lasvegasnow.com 

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be coming to town this week. As with nearly every other stop the circus makes, it will be greeted by animal welfare protesters. But this year, the animal activists have a new reason to complain about how the circus treats its elephants and other animals. A federal judge says the animal groups can now move forward with a blockbuster lawsuit. Animal welfare groups filed the suit eight years ago and it took all this time to finally get it to court.

Read the court complaint

The trial is set for October. It will give the animal groups a chance to finally prove what they have alleged for many years -- that life in a traveling circus is no life at all for animals, especially endangered Asian Elephants.

"If there was a humane way to have an elephant in a circus, I would still be there. But I just realized there was no humane way to do it," said former circus employee Tom Rider.

Read the injunction

Rider spent more than two years with the Ringling Brothers Circus in managing the dozen or so Asian Elephants which spend their lives being whisked from city to city, performance to performance.

Today, he is one of five plaintiffs in the massive lawsuit filed against the circus for mistreating an endangered species.

Elephants have long been a symbol for Ringling Brothers, which is why circus executives say it is in their financial interest to take the best possible care or their pachyderm meal tickets.

Read the circus' response

But there is considerable evidence to the contrary, including undercover videos recorded of circus trainers using the infamous ankus, or bullhook, a combination club and metal hook which can inflict considerable pain and injury. In PR statements, the circus has another word for bullhooks. They call them guides, and say they're comparable to a leash on a dog.

Rider says they are hardly benign, "We have video of them using bullhooks over the last 15 years. They've killed four baby elephants. We have documents of that. We have documents of the USDA covering up the death of Benjamin. He was killed with a bullhook." It's taken eight long years just to get the case to court.

The plaintiffs allege the circus stalled at every step. It took a court order to obtain internal veterinary records and emails. Those records are damning. Ringling's own vets talk of elephants with multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks -- wounds that were covered up with makeup known as wonder dust. One baby elephant named Kenny was bleeding and sick but was forced to perform anyway. He died.

Tom Rider wrote to owner Ken Feld to warn him that trainers with bullhooks hurt the elephants so badly the animals were bleeding during performances.

Many have been exposed to tuberculosis, which hits elephants much as it does people. A circus vet complained in 2004 that the elephants weren't getting enough water, that the water they did get was polluted with soap and bleach, and that water was withheld on purpose. "They don't want them to urinate during a performance," said Rider.

The essence of the lawsuit isn't about bullhooks or water, though. It's based on the fundamental belief that life on the road is simply the wrong way to treat an intelligent endangered species.

"Elephants are forced to endure a lifetime of misery for 12 minutes under the big top. That's appalling. It's criminal and it's shameful. The general public has no idea how these animals live. These are wild animals that have to perform on cue every day, day after day. They don't do it because they enjoy it. They do it because they are afraid and are forced to. And if they don't move fast enough for a performance, they get beat the minute they get behind the curtain away from the audience," said animal activist Linda Faso.

Faso says that even if Ringling Brothers treated the elephants with loving care, it is inherently cruel to make them live the life of a traveling circus performer.

"They travel up to 48 to 50 weeks a year in a railroad car -- chained from show to show. That's their home. They don't have a place to live. Ringling's own paper say that sometimes they are chained up to 60 hours on a train, back and front leg. They can't even turn around and move. These are animals that move 25 miles a day, bathe and groom themselves, and they're chained in place. It's criminal," she said.

Tuesday, a look at how the circus has fought back against animal groups, including how it hired the former Director of Covert Operations for the CIA to go after its critics. Email your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp

Comment:  Add your voice and send responses to animal related stories covered by the media, like this one.  It encourages follow-ups and similarly themed stories.  In my e-mail to Mr Knapp I thanked him for his coverage and mentioned that I’ll be following the case.  He sent a short reply and said there was more to come. Carmina Gooch 

I-Team: Circus Lawsuit Part 2

Animal welfare groups are expected to protest this week's arrival of the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Las Vegas.

The group has long accused the circus of animal cruelty and court records show the circus has played rough in response. It spent millions of dollars on a 10 year espionage campaign which infiltrated and spied on animal organizations and activists. The man in charge was previously the head of Covert Operations for the CIA.

Animal groups hope to have the last word when they haul Ringling Brothers into federal court this October with a lawsuit alleging the circus is cruel to its endangers Asian Elephants.

Ringling Brothers is regarded as the biggest and best circus in the world. Unlike smaller operations, they take pride in the care it provides to exotic animals, including its large herd of endangered Asian Elephants. Other circuses have seen their elephants run amok, attack cruel trainers and get gunned down in the street, but not Ringling.

The circus rakes in more than $100 million a year for Las Vegas impresario Kenneth Feld, who also produced the Siegfried and Roy show. The elephants are so popular that Ringling says the show could not go on without them. At least one former employee says that's ridiculous.

"This is a town that has Cirque De Soleil. They don't have animals. They make a ton of money. Why can't Ringling Brothers do that?" said Tom Rider.

Rider spent two and a half years working with the Ringling elephants. He got to know each of them individually, their distinct personalities, fell in love with the big pachyderms but quit in disgust because of what he alleges is an ongoing pattern of physical abuse and psychological torture. "They are making these elephants bleed for our entertainment. That's absolutely wrong," he said.

Rider and other ex-Ringling employees have told investigators horror stories about elephants whose hides are scarred by beatings, open wounds, untreated infections, rampant tuberculosis, animals that died and babies ripped away from their mothers, telltale signs of fear and emotional turmoil generated by trainers who use so-called bullhooks to teach the elephants who's boss and internal memos written by Ringling's own animal experts that could bolster the testimony of the whistleblowers.

Ringling says its elephants are so valuable it would make no sense to abuse them. In October, the circus will have a chance to crush its critics when a federal court finally hears the lawsuit filed eight years ago by Rider and leading animal welfare groups.

The critics want Ringling to permanently retire its elephants because they say it is inherently cruel to force these behemoths to live like traveling carnies -- in chains most of their lives and housed in cramped rail cars. "They travel up to 48 to 50 weeks a year in a railroad car -- chained from show to show. That's their home. It's their whole existence," said animal welfare activist Linda Faso.

Not true says Ringling. The company owns a sprawling facility in Florida where elephants can kick back when they're not on the road.

But animal groups say the elephant facility is primarily an elephant factory -- a breeding operation created, not to preserve the species, but to make sure the circus will own future generations of performers. "It's like a puppy mill for elephants. They are literally just breeding baby elephants to put them into the circus," said Rider.

The circus says that its trainers can tell which elephants enjoy performing and which ones don't. A baby that doesn't want to be trained isn't, they say, adding that most of the elephants are not only healthy but happy to be in show biz. The plaintiffs think they too can read elephant minds.

"These are wild animals that have to perform on cue day after day. They don't do it because they enjoy it. They do it because they are afraid and they're forced to. It's like a battered woman. They take it and they take it and they take it, and it's really sad. And people buying tickets need to know that," said Faso.

Ringling Brothers notes that it has never been found to be in violation of animal welfare laws, but government records show it has been cited many time by USDA inspectors although the citations were quashed by higher ups.

The USDA official who, for 27 years, was in charge of the inspection program for exotic animals changed jobs a few years ago. He was hired away by Ringling.

Update: The lawsuit, scheduled for October 20, 2008, in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., has been delayed, possibly for several months.  The lawsuit alleges that the forceful use of bullhooks and the constant chaining and confinement of the animals unlawfully “takes” the Asian elephants in violation of the Endangered Species Act.  “Takes” includes acts that “harm, wound, injure, harass, or kill” an endangered species in the wild or in captivity.

Circus Defends Use Of Hooks On Elephants

March 3, 2009 CEO Says Striking Animals With Metal Prods Doesn't Harm Them But Protects The Public

(AP)  The head of the company that owns the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus acknowledged in federal court Tuesday that all his elephant handlers strike the animals with metal-tipped prods, but he said it's necessary to keep the huge animals under control and doesn't harm them.

Feld Entertainment Chairman/Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Feld said the circus probably couldn't have elephants without the prods - called bull hooks - and chains that are at the center of a trial in U.S. District Court. He said the prods and restraints are needed to protect the safety of his staff and the public.

Animal rights groups are suing Feld Entertainment, saying the use of those instruments harms the company's 54 Asian elephants, an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act. The trial, being heard by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan without a jury, already has been going on for a month and is expected to last a couple more weeks.

The defense opened its case Tuesday by calling Feld as its first witness. The executive said he has no tolerance for mistreatment of circus animals, and employees are trained on proper policies and encouraged to report abuse. But under cross examination, he said the company has no policy to make sure he's personally aware of abuse investigations.

He said he's seen handlers hit elephants under the chin, behind the ears or on the legs with a bull hook - which resembles a thick fireplace poker with a curved metal hook - describing it as a standard practice to "correct" or "guide" the animals. "I don't view what I've seen as abuse," he said.

He said a handler was verbally reprimanded in 1994 for using a "hot shot," or electric prod, on an elephant, but not fired because experienced elephant handlers are hard to find and he didn't do it again. He also said the hot shot doesn't harm elephants, and is appropriately used to protect public safety or break up fights between the animals.

The animal rights groups, including the Animal Welfare Institute, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Fund for Animals and the Animal Protection Institute, are suing to stop Ringling Bros. from using elephants in their shows.

Feld argued that the circus wouldn't be the same without elephants, with the majority of attendees saying they come to see the performing pachyderms. "Elephants are really the mainstay of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey," he testified. "They are probably the most important part and the most constant factor year in and year out."

Feld said he considers his elephants part of the family, caring for them after retirement on a 200-acre conservation center in central Florida. He said his company spends more than $62,000 a year on each elephant, with 19 traveling with the show and the rest generating no revenue at the private conservative center.

He said the company has the only sustainable herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, with 22 elephants born since 1992 as part of its elephant breeding program. The latest birth was the first from artificial insemination - a male named Barack, born on the eve of President Barack Obama's inauguration.

He argued that his elephants are more robust than those he saw in the wild during a family trip to South Africa last summer, where he saw them foraging for food in the bush, a "violent scene" of fighting males and a young elephant with sores over his head and trunk that had been abandoned.

Feld Entertainment produces not only the circus, but Disney on Ice, Disney Live! stage shows and motor sports like monster truck shows and motorcycle races. The private company was started by Kenneth Feld's father and has remained a family business, with Kenneth Feld's two daughters working as executive vice presidents.

Judge Sides With Circus in Elephant Cruelty Case

Dec 31, 2009 By Kevin Spak 

Newser – A judge threw out an elephant abuse lawsuit against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, saying the plaintiff, former Ringling employee Tom Rider, hadn’t demonstrated a close enough attachment to the animals. Rider and the Animal Protection Institute had argued that circus practices like using bull hooks on elephants or chaining them for prolonged periods of times constituted violations of the Endangered Species Act.  

But the judge said Rider hadn’t shown that, and had questionable credibility, given the tens of thousands of dollars API and other animal rights groups have given him over the years, reports the Washington Post. “The court finds that Mr. Rider is essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible, and therefore affords no weight to his testimony,” he wrote.

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