Lawsuit Challenges Image of Circus Elephants as Willing Performers
2009-02-01

New York Times
January 31, 2009
By David Stout

Among the issues is whether elephants are compliant because of positive reinforcement or fear.
Keith Meyers/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — One of the most iconic images of American life, that of circus elephants joined trunk-to-tail as they lumber along to delight “children of all ages,” as the old saying goes, is about to be debated in a courtroom.

Are the beasts docile because they are highly intelligent and respond well to training, reinforced with the promise of apples, carrots, water and kindness at day’s end? Or do they obey because their spirits have been broken and they fear getting hit by their trainers?

These are among the questions that will be asked when a lawsuit by a coalition of animal rights’ groups against the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus and its parent company opens in federal court here on Wednesday.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs say the circus’s Asian elephants sleep and travel in cramped, filthy quarters and are routinely prodded, even bloodied, with special clubs or “bull hooks.” The idea that the animals are happy “and allowed to roam free and to socialize” is an illusion created by the circus and its parent, Feld Entertainment Inc. of Vienna, Va., the plaintiffs say.

But the defendants say in court papers that the elephants are “healthy and well cared for” and that they are attended to by veterinarians around the clock. The elephants’ quarters are roomy and well ventilated, heated when necessary, and tended by crews with shovels and hoses at the ready, the defendants say.

Moreover, they say, the club or “guide” used by a trainer is no more cruel than a leash on a dog or a bridle on a horse, and what few injuries occur are minor and easily treated.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of Federal District Court will try the case without a jury, at the request of the plaintiffs. They seek an injunction barring the circus from engaging in a number of practices they call cruel, including chaining the elephants for long stretches.

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.

The plaintiffs include the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Fund for Animals. 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.)

With a shaky economy, conflicts abroad and a new president in the White House, a lawsuit over elephants may seem relatively unimportant. But people get emotional over the huge, intelligent and sociable creatures.

And there is big money at stake. Feld Entertainment says that its productions, which include ventures with the Walt Disney Company, are seen by 25 million people a year around the world, and that its 50 or so elephants are as much a part of the circus as clowns and trapeze artists.

“In effect,” the defense says, the plaintiffs “are hoping to put an end to circus elephants.”

But Ms. Silverman said, “We simply want the elephants to be treated humanely and in accordance with the law.” If her side wins, she said, Ringling Brothers “would have to stop hitting elephants with bull hooks and keeping them in chains,” except for veterinary care or another legitimate purpose.

The plaintiffs say they will introduce videotape documenting mistreatment and will call several experts on elephants, as well as some current or former Ringling Brothers trainers.

The defense says that at least one former trainer and plaintiff, Tom Rider, is not to be believed because he has been on the payroll of the animal rights’ groups. Ms. Silverman says Mr. Rider has received only “a very modest amount” of money for public relations work.

Feld Entertainment says it is committed not only to the safety and happiness of individual Asian elephants, but also to the species. It mentions having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on breeding, conservation and research programs.

The parties have been battling for years, and will continue to do so no matter what Judge Sullivan decides. Feld Entertainment, in turn, has sued the A.S.P.C.A. and other animal groups, accusing them of violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. That case will be heard later, Ms. Pardo said.

The emotions run deep — and not just on the plaintiffs’ side, apparently. Kenneth J. Feld, the chief executive of the circus company who took over after the death of his father, Irvin, in 1984, described elephants as his “personal passion” in a recent interview with Portfolio magazine.

“I love these animals,” Mr. Feld said.

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