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Ringling Bros. circus goes on trial for alleged elephant abuse

February 4, 2009 | 12:35 pm

This photo is among the images placed in evidence by a coalition of animal welfare groups in their lawsuit against Ringling Bros., circus claiming that circus elephants are sometimes chained for days at a time.

After more than eight years of litigation, the case brought by animal activists against the Ringling Bros. circus, alleging routine mistreatment of the circus' Asian elephants, goes to trial today in U.S. District Court. 

Plaintiffs -- including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals and former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider-- will argue that common training practices (including the use of the hooked poles commonly called bull hooks) and the chaining of elephants for up to 20 hours at a stretch in barns and freight trains constitute cruelty. 

Moreover, they argue that these practices are in violation of the Endangered Species Act's ban on "harming," "harassing" or "wounding" an endangered animal.  The trial promises to be an interesting one, as the Legal Times explains:

The case is a major test for the reach of the Endangered Species Act, which for the first time is being used by private citizens to try to influence the care of animals already in captivity.

If Ringling Bros. loses its bench trial ... many supporters on both sides believe it could spell the beginning of the end for the use of elephants in circuses or any other kind of entertainment.

"If [the plaintiffs] had their way, the only way that Americans are going to be able to see elephants is in books and videos," says Michelle Pardo, a senior associate at Fulbright & Jaworski, which is representing Ringling Bros. and its parent company, Feld Entertainment.

The defendants say the elephants are "healthy and well cared for" and argue that the use of the so-called bull hooks is no more cruel than a dog's leash or a horse's bridle. 

Former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider shows a bull hook used on circus elephants They bristle about the allegations of abuse, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Pardo described the lawsuit as "part of a long-running crusade to eliminate animals from circuses, zoos and wildlife parks" by animal activist groups. She said the circus' training practices are "the most safe, humane and effective tools to use with elephants in the circus." Without them, she said, there would be no way for handlers to manage the elephants.

Former Hollywood elephant trainer Pat Derby agrees that other methods are less effective.

"You cannot train an elephant without force or fear and have them perform consistently, all the time," said Derby, 67. But she also said she ultimately quit her job training elephants for movies in 1982 because she could not bear the way elephants were mistreated during training sessions.

(Derby is now the president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society [PAWS], the group to whose sanctuary activists hoped Billy, the L.A. Zoo's sole Asian elephant, would be moved when the City Council seemed poised to halt construction on the zoo's Pachyderm Forest exhibit.)

The New York Times explains some of the intricacies of the trial:

The defendants are asking the judge to dismiss the case. They argue that the plaintiffs have most of their "facts" wrong and are also wrong on the law, basing much of their case on the Endangered Species Act, which the defendants say Congress never intended to apply to animals in captivity.

... Tracy Silverman, a lawyer for the Animal Welfare Institute, said she expected the trial to last up to three weeks. Asked whether a settlement is possible, she replied, "Most likely not."

A lawyer for the defense, Michelle Pardo, said that the plaintiffs' case was "false and distorted" and that Ringling Brothers regularly passed inspections by federal, state and local authorities in its treatment of the animals. (The plaintiffs say those inspections are often rigged.)

While activists hope the case against Ringling Bros. will lead to future legal proceedings against other circuses, the Legal Times explains that it may not be that easy:

The case against Ringling Bros., however, may be difficult to replicate. While there are five plaintiffs on the docket, the only one with actual standing is former elephant handler Tom Rider, who worked for the circus between 1997 and 1999. In court documents, Rider has claimed that he left the circus because of the alleged abuse the animals suffered at the hands of their trainers. The court has accepted his grief over the elephants' treatment as the plaintiffs' only grounds for standing, and in a partial summary judgment, Sullivan ruled that the plaintiffs could only sue to protect the elephants with which Rider had a personal emotional connection. As a result, the case is technically limited to the treatment of just six animals, though Meyer says she is hopeful he will deliver a ruling that applies to Ringling Bros.'s entire 54-elephant herd.

Humane Society of the United States Vice President Jonathan Lovvorn is one of the lawyers for  the Fund for Animals (an HSUS affiliate) on the case and will be writing daily trial updates on the HSUS' website.

--Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: Circus elephants stand in chains. This image is among those placed in evidence by a coalition of animal welfare groups in their lawsuit against Ringling Bros.  Credit: Animal Welfare Institute / Associated Press.
Bottom photo: Plaintiff Tom Rider displays a bull hook during a 2006 legislative hearing.  Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press.

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