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Ringling Bros. circus goes on trial for alleged elephant abuse

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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Ringling Bros. SHAME ON YOU!!!!!!!!!

This is the 21st century. NO animals should be in circuses. Cirque du Soleil has shown that circuses can be enormously successful using only fantastic athletes and artists and beautiful music.

Their shows can transfix kids and adults and there are no elephants or lions. Most of the kids who go to old-fashioned circuses enjoy the slapstick, knockabout comedy and trapeze artists more than the animals.

Time for Ringling Brothers to put away the elephant hooks and the lion-tamer whips for good.

Every body understands that a magnificent and strong elephant needs to be handle in a physical way...and that is precisely the problem. Not only the handling but also the capture and the training of elephants are cruel and totally unnecessary. Nobody has the right to deprive these creatures of their right to be free in their natural habitats fulfilling the role nature intended for them to have. Elephants DO NOT belong in any type of show organized to entertain other species. If you want to go to the circus, go to an animal-free circus. Not only you will be supporting the human actors but also doing justice to these animals who for many centuries have been slaves of human greed.

Look at the picture above. What you are looking at are modern day slaves. It's time for abolition to come to circuses. The animals abused by some of the cruelest slaveholders in the world must be set free to sanctuaries. It is time to end this slavery.

Remember Benjamin! Remember Riccardo! Remember them all!

I voted "No"--however IF and that is a big "IF"---the elephants are well-fed AND treated well--maybe, just maybe, they are better off in the circus than in their native land where poachers mow them down with AK-47's. Do we have enough zoos and sanctuaries to care for the ones presently in the circus?? Poor elephants--they deserve better than to be mistreated.

SLAVERY used to be an American institution as well and we all know how that panned out. If these bullhooks are simply a "guide" as Ringling claims, then I'm sure they will have no problem getting rid of them. Let's see if they keep performing those hideous tricks for "positive" reinforcements such as apples and such.

NO animal should be in the circus. Let it be acts, talents and performances. I might start going back if that was the case. Until there are no more animals forced to perform inane tricks, I think I will contine to be absent- and hope everyone I know also will not attend.

The argument in the article about never being able to see an elephant? Well, I havent seen a red crested ringtail either and I am ok with that. Knowing they are in their own habitat is enough.

Boycott Ringling.... boycott all circuses that use animals as objects of entertainment...for your $$$$. The simple fact that these animals are in an entertaniment venue and must adhere to a rigorous performance schedule speaks volumes. The environment is unnatural for elephants... and so are the 'learned' performance behaviors.

Elephants have no choice! But YOU DO!

-- Midwest USA --

CIRCUSES ORIGINATED AS FREAK SHOWS, INFLICTING BOTH HUMAN AND ANIMAL SUFFERING. WHILE ADVANCES HAVE BEEN MADE FOR THE HUMAN PERFORMERS, RINGLING BROS. ELEPHANTS CONTINUE TO BE SUBJECT TO DEPRIVATION, CHAININGS, AND BEATINGS. THERE ARE FAR MORE APPROPRIATE CIRCUS TYPE ENTERTAINMENTS.

I think consciouness is raising and most people do not want to see animals living miserable, tortured, lives. I just pray this trial will end with a victory for these beautiful elephants who deserve to spend what years they have left in a sanctuary, knowing what it is like to be FREE.

Let all animals free where the belong!!

I have not attended any event that uses live animals for entertainment in decades. I just could not endure looking into their sad eyes. These beautiful creatures are used and abused until they are to old to perform, then what. They should be left to roam in the wilds not chained up waiting to perform. Circus workers are creepy. In 2009 circuses should be about more sophistocaited entertainment than using these wonderful animals. Cirque du Soleil is what I'mm talk'n bout......

Civilized people are only beginning to awaken to the fact that animals are sentient beings, just like us! They feel pain, suffer emotional deprivation and long for the joys of freedom and to be with their own kind. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering animals endure for our palate, our pleasures and yes, for greed. How infantile and selfish are we to think only of satisfying our own needs and never considering those of these captive animals, forced to perform unnatural tricks and live like indentured slaves! It is time to evolve!

Wild animals deserve to be free, not prisoners for our entertainment and greed.

I don't believe any wild animal belongs in a circus. Obviously it takes a strong hand to be able to control large animals. They were meant to be in the wild, not captured and used for entertainment. They should stay in the wild where God intended them to be. It is cruel to take them out of their natural habitat and keep them cooped up in cages then strong armed into performing. Leave these animals alone. Maybe we should capture these people, put them in cages, beat them, and make THEM perform.

My God animals do not belong in circuses.Poor elephants~Shame on you for abusing these elephants

Noooo animales en los circosss.. bajo pena de ser sancionados.. basta de crueldad, sean como el circo de soleil que no tiene animales, dejense de maltratar..

These elephants really do need to be with their friends and families running free!

I wish people would quit abusing animals. These are God's creatures in which man were made to take care of them and not to abuse them. This is why Noah had to bring a male and female on his boat. I strongly feel that every person that abuses an animal will be punished when he meets his Maker (God) who created the animals and entrusted man to treat them with kindness. Animlas provide so much happiness and companionship to so many people, children, the elderly, and the lonely.

Never knew such atrocities were happening to these animals for our enjoyment at the circus. Even if I'm given free tickets- WILL NEVER GO TO THE CIRCUS! ESPECIALLY RINGLING BROTHERS! HATE EM'!

along with zoos, circuses are barbaric. animals aren't here for people to be entertained by them, but our arrogance believes that this is so.

boycott the circus and the zoo!

We have to show that we have evolved beyond this kind of cruelty and respect these incredible creatures by championing their freedom in their own natural environments... F. Biondo

We must show we have evolved away from this cruelty and respect these incredible animals by championing their freedom in their natural environments...

I just want to say that I'm so happy to be reading comments from people who realize that animals are sentient beings who deserve to be treated with kindness.

There's no reason why these animals should have to suffer so much just so that some people could be mildly amused for a few moments. There is so much violence in the world, it's a bad message for people to be sending to their children that abusing animals is entertaining.

release the elephants back into the wild were they belong.

No animal belongs in a circus. People are more than happy to see acrobats, magicians, etc.

Animal abuse is wrong wrong wrong and having them in a circus is ANIMAL ABUSE!@! PERIOD!!

SHAME ON RINGLING BROTHERS HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO THE ANIMALS??? release all these animals to the wild. I agree with phaedra wolber. I would aresst all those nasty people and trainers shame on you on people and most of all the ringling brothers. im never going to your show again!!!! EVER

please stop animal abuse it makes me feel so bad i hate those nasty people who abuse them shame on you
and by the way on the ringling brothers website there is a whole thing about how they care for the animals well that whole thing is not true. Thank you for reading my note and i hope that the ringling brothers get arressted for life.

p.s. ringling is the oppisite of the greatest show on earth

I went to the circus tonight......and those elephants didn't have sad looks in their eyes. Personally, I just don't understand how you say these animals are being abused.....they didn't have any whips or beating tools.......Those elephants look happy and healthy, and so did the tigers, dogs, and goats. You people amaze me. Always wanting to take the fun out of everything! Next thing you know, you all are going to try and ban owning dogs and cats because they provide us entertainment!

I don't understand. If Ringling Brother's is abusing the animals, why are they still allowed to have animals in their shows? Which government agency is overseeing this? Why to they still have the animals if they are even suspected of abusing them? I don't understand why the animals have not been removed from that environment. Who is responsible?

Everyone who accept this is equally guilty. Even teens who go to circuses.

Here is what I have to say about all that:

Although I tried to see both sides of this very complicated and opinionated story, I am still against animal circuses, and hope that we will someday ban them. I think that forcing animals to be entertainment is cruel and disgusting. Every single animal’s biggest threat is humans. We hunt sharks for their fins, elephants for their tusks, and tigers for their skin. We bulldoze their habitats; take away their food sources, and much, much more. All that is done when the animals are still wild; and now we come along and bring them into captivity just so that we can abuse them some more! Our society has no respect for other animals, and that has got to change!

This capturing and torture-training asian elephants has to come to and end with seious repercussions as severe prison time. Why should these beautiful ,intellegent animals have their lives used for torture to entertain humans that could read or watch elephants real lives on how they look and live amoung themselves. GET HORRIBLE TORTURE/TRAIN TO STOP. NO MORE CAPTURES. THEY NEED AND DESERVE TO LIVE THEIR LIVES IN THEIR OWN ENVIRMENT. PLEASE !!!!!!!PASS LAWS AND FOLLOW THRU WITH PRISON. MONEY SHOULD NOT ALLOW THESE PEOPLE CONTINUE THIS TORTURE FOR THERE POCKETS. THANKYOU

Elephants are smart, social, beautiful, family animals and should be in their own envirment to live "THEIR " lives. Not be controled, abused, to entertain people. Please use the court system to stop this brutality immediately. It saddens me and i'm sure many millions of people who truly love and understand how elephants should live their lives which is under their envioment aned their control. Please STOP this torture.

No animal should be in a circus. Elephants should be in THEIR own envirment. There should be a law with serious prison time for anyone who captures a elephant and abuse for people's entertainment. It's is a disgrace!!! Do some research on how they should live. It is with their families, they are social and gentle and intellgent. Who do these scarey people thing they are to capture, torture and abuse them at will to preform? They should not have to preform but ONLY TO LIVE THEIR LIVES THAT GOD GAVE THEM.


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