From Animal Issues, Volume 40 Number 2, Summer 2009
After nearly a decade of waiting, through often tortuous legal maneuvering, the elephants finally got their day in court. After years of circus industry denials about the mistreatment of animals behind the big top, the truth has finally been exposed for the world to see.
The case against Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, brought by Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute and other animal organizations, involves charges that the Circus cruelly mistreats endangered Asian elephants in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The trial, six weeks long, concluded on March 18, 2009.
Central to the lawsuit is the allegation that the use of bullhooks and the constant chaining of elephants wounds, harasses, and harms the elephants, which amounts to a “take” in violation of the ESA. The Judge has not yet rendered a decision in this precedent-setting case. As soon as the Judge delivers his ruling Born Free USA Members and supporters will be among the first to know!
This trial meant even more to me after seeing elephants where they should be — in the wild. I traveled to Kenya this past fall and had the honor and pleasure to see hundreds of elephants acting as elephants should. The circus industry claims that the acts the elephants perform in the ring are modeled after what elephants would “naturally” do in the wild.
However, what I witnessed in Kenya were elephants in large matriarchal herds, walking long distances, playing in watering holes, taking afternoon naps, bonding with their mothers, and socializing with one another. The wild elephants did not: walk in a line holding each other’s tail, stand on pedestals and twirl, sit in rapid succession, play with balls, nor stand on concrete immobilized in chains. At the trial, our team of lawyers was able to paint a true picture of what these magnificent animals endure in the name of entertainment.
I was present throughout the trial and served as a chief witness in the case. Each day of the trial brought the introduction of countless pieces of incontrovertible, damning evidence of cruelty, as well as a series of expert witnesses who compellingly demonstrated that Ringling’s practices of bullhook use and near constant chaining are tantamount to a pervasive, routine, and unconscionable violation of the ESA.
Volumes of evidence were entered into the record revealing how long the animals are kept immobilized in chains (often more than a day straight); video footage of employees hitting the elephants; government enforcement records, and medical records clearly describing the poor health conditions of the elephants. We have placed all the evidence on our website at www.bornfreeusa.org/courtdocs and have arranged them by issue area for easier viewing.
Some of the startling Evidentiary Highlights:
- Ringling’s medical records were reviewed by a Board-certified retired veterinarian from the San Diego Zoo, Dr. Phillip Ensley, an expert witness for the Plaintiffs. Dr. Ensley found:
- All the adult elephants suffer from foot-related problems — lameness, nail cracks, and toe abscesses — and many have arthritis, all as a result of being restrained by chains and standing on hard surfaces for most of their lives.
- 14 of Ringling’s 16 baby elephants suffer from similar foot and joint problems, again as a result of being restrained by chains on hard surfaces.
- Ringling’s own transportation records proved that elephants spend extensive amounts of time being chained, in some cases up to 100 consecutive hours in cramped circus railroad cars.
- Countless hours of video footage were entered into evidence showing the elephants being routinely hooked and chained.
- Transcripts of depositions of former Ringling employees declared that while employed for Ringling they saw handlers routinely abuse elephants with bullhooks.
- Internal written documents from Ringling Bros. Circus discuss the mistreatment of its elephants in regards to the bullhook —
- Ringling’s animal behaviorist reported “an elephant dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show from being hooked.”
- Ringling’s veterinary assistant reported that “[a]fter this morning’s baths, at least 4 of the elephants came in with multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks.” “The lacerations were very visible ... [a handler] applied wonder dust just before the show.” Wonder dust is used to stop the bleeding of a wound; because it is charcoal in color it covers up the spot from public view.
- A former veterinarian reported seeing “a lot of severe, likely not completely treatable foot problems at Williston, that originated in the years that the elephants were on the road ... I noticed some small lacerations behind the forelegs and ears of some of the elephants. I went specifically looking for these with just Pete present and Dutchess, Jenny and Judy, and found several bloody spots and one small abscess.”
In addition, a number of shocking statements were made by witnesses in the case, further proving the horrible treatment elephants endure in the Ringling Bros. Circus.
Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, the parent company that owns Ringling Bros., admitted under oath on cross-examination that all of his handlers strike the elephants with bullhooks. This comes after years of denying this very fact — a fact that we knew all along!
Also, the manager of the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC), the breeding facility in Florida that Ringling boasts is “the ideal environment” in which Asian elephants “flourish and thrive,” testified that the elephants at the CEC spend on average 16 hours chained, while some spend more than 22 hours chained on concrete.
The evidence presented at trial — through documents and witness testimony — creates an irrefutable argument that elephants are illegally mistreated by the Ringling Bros. Circus. Our case is strong. And of equal importance, this information is now in the public domain for the world to see. The shocking reality of life behind the big top has been exposed.
There is no denying that elephants are routinely struck with bullhooks and chained for the majority of their lives. Undeniable. Irrefutable. Condemning.
And now that we are armed with this massive amount of evidence, Born Free USA can present it to legislatures, the media, and compassionate citizens across the country as part of our ongoing effort to stop the suffering of elephants in circuses.
Born Free USA along with our co-plaintiffs, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and Tom Rider (ex-Ringling employee), had an amazing team of lawyers, headed by Kathy Meyer of Meyer, Glitzenstein, and Crystal. The elephants could not have had better legal advocates on their side.
And of course without you, our loyal and dedicated members, we could not have made it this far. We thank you and the elephants thank you! With your support, we will continue to ensure that all elephants are free from abuse and mistreatment.
Learn More: See all the court documents, exhibits (including videos), and transcripts from the trial. Just visit www.bornfreeusa.org/courtdocs and see for yourself — the evidence truly is irrefutable!