Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation:
Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida
Ringling Bros. Circus Elephants Parade
Thursday morning, after a full two-day ride from Miami with just one stop in Birmingham, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train pulled to a stop on a side track in The Gulch.
Seven female Asian elephants, their feet unchained from their train-car home, waited to emerge into Nashville’s winter chill. Two of the elephants, “the divas,” said Ringling Bros. regional public relations manager Melinda Hartline, will travel to Bridgestone Arena by truck.
The other five, in a ritual that has been used for more than 100 years to thrill children and adults, and to help sell tickets, made the brisk walk down Demonbreun.
Elephants Alana, left, and Icky, right, stand in their pen at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida January 17, 2013.
Along the way to Bridgestone — where seven Ringling shows take place this weekend — the elephants were escorted by handlers carrying poles with metal points and hooks on the end called guides, or bullhooks, depending on whom you ask.
For many people, especially among members of the animal welfare movement, the elephant walk is a march of cruelty, a profit-driven parade that is merely a prelude to a show that is more about the hubris of man than an engaging display of exotic animal behavior.
PETA representatives Hayley Ray, left, dressed as an injured elephant, Robin Merritt, center, and Matt Bruce protest the treatment of baby elephants by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Jan. 10 in Pensacola, Fla.
/ Tony Giberson / Pensacola News Journal.
To the circus industry and the millions of people around the country who will attend a show this year — as well as the families who lined the route on Thursday, like Laurie Hooper and her 2-year-old son, Griffin — it remains the “Greatest Show on Earth,” and an opportunity to marvel in close proximity to animals as foreign as their lands of origins.
In between the two lines of thought is a crowded landscape of litigation, zoos and sanctuaries, education and conservation programs. The Los Angeles City Council is weighing restrictions on elephants in traveling circuses, effectively banning them. A similar effort, however, failed in Atlanta.
April the elephant stands in her cage at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation near Orlando, Fla. While attitudes on elephants have changed over the years, the moral standards for their treatment remain complex.
/ Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean
While attitudes about elephants have changed a lot since the gruesome day in 1916 when an elephant was hanged in Erwin, Tenn., for killing its handler, the moral standards for their treatment remain incredibly complex.
Defining abuse, neglect
Much of the debate around elephants centers on what exactly constitutes abuse and neglect.
The standards for judging that are broader than one might imagine. They range from the common sense of a witness to what the USDA and the Department of Interior (because Asian elephants are endangered species) will allow. For example, being chained and confined in a rail car for more than 24 hours is well within the bounds of the law.
Elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus parade Thursday through Nashville to Bridgestone Arena, where seven Ringling shows take place this weekend.
/ Steven S. Harman/The Tennessean.
Complicating matters, the dialogue continues to be framed in the polarized language of “us against them,” where critics are painted as extremists by the circus industry, while the circus is nothing more than an industry of monsters in the eyes of welfare groups.
“I don’t consider myself an extremist,” says Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, who previously worked as an attorney with the Department of Justice and Homeland Security.
“We have former district attorneys on our board, so our organization is probably a little different from some of the voices out there. The main problem that we face is that from all evidence, it appears impossible to have elephants perform, or to display them in captivity, without doing things that the average person would consider abusive, or without housing them in conditions that the average person would find to be neglectful.
“And abuse and neglect are violations of our historical animal cruelty laws. The industry makes money by exhibiting performing animals; they’ll say what they have to, to keep their jobs.”
Steve Payne, spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, takes issue with that.
“The estimates vary between twenty-five-to-thirty-five-thousand Asian elephants left in the world, and our chairman and CEO, Kenneth Feld, I know he considers one of his legacies is the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation and our breeding program, to make sure that future generations are able to see these animals, that they don’t vanish from the earth,” Payne says.
“We don’t make them do anything. As I sometimes joke with people, you can’t make eight-to-ten-thousand pounds do something eight-to-ten-thousand pounds doesn’t want to do. The behaviors that people see in a show, for example, are based on natural behaviors that elephants exhibit, despite what some of the animal groups would say. Yes, elephants do stand on their heads; they do sit up in a way that you’ll see in the show.”
Elephant experts, though, say that’s not a true portrayal of real behavior.
Dr. Rob Atkinson, former director of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., says, “Anyone who’s making elephants stand on their heads or do hind-leg stands or tub sits, it’s unlikely you can train that using simple reward because it causes such a strain. That pressure goes on part of the body wall that’s not made to take pressure. Hernias are quite common in circus elephants as well as joint illness because they are placing such unnatural strains.”
Atkinson, who has a Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University and worked for years in zoos as well as with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explains the conflict of opinion.
“I have seen an elephant, it was a youngster, and she knew perfectly well how to do a hind-leg stand; she did them every day of her life. She was trying to reach a leaf, and she lowered her bottom, and that tilted her front up, and she couldn’t quite reach it. Then she tilted one shoulder down, and that gave her an extra inch for her trunk, and she did everything she could to reach this leaf, but she never once stood on her hind legs to reach it, and I knew she could because she did it every day.”
When asked then why these elephants perform as they do, he drew the discussion back to the bullhook and its use for punishment or negative reinforcement: “I suspect that there is some degree of aversiveness, and it may be quite a considerable amount, and fear and all the rest, to get them to do tricks in the first place.”
Settlement solves little
If it weren’t complicated enough, a recent court settlement does nothing but push the two sides farther apart.
A group including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society, other advocacy groups, and former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider brought a suit against Ringling Bros. using the Endangered Species Act.
The suit was dismissed, with prejudice, as was an appeal. Ringling Bros. then countersued the organizations using racketeering laws to say Rider, the principal witness, was nothing more than a paid informant. Last December, the ASPCA agreed to pay Ringling Bros. a $9.3 million settlement.
“It’s taken 12 years of time, emotional turmoil, expense to defend against it,” says Feld Entertainment’s Payne, “and then we come to discover that it all rests on the fact that these organizations were paying a plaintiff to say what he said.”
“You know, it really isn’t a miscarriage of the judicial system, and it’s not just my view on that and the company’s view on that, it was the judge’s view on that, in the litigation.”
Concerning the allegations of abuse, Payne says they were dismissed. “The court concluded he didn’t have any credibility because he was getting paid. When it came time to actually dig deeper into his statements about these elephants that he claimed to have such an emotional attachment to, he didn’t know their names, he couldn’t identify them.”
For the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Dillard, who considered it a loss on a technicality and sloppy language, the more telling result was in the testimony.
“The fact is that Kenneth Feld, the head of Feld Entertainment, admitted that they strike elephants with sharp bullhooks, under oath. The evidence put forward in the case overwhelmingly showed that to get those elephants to perform, they abuse them.”
As for the credibility of the witness, Dillard counters, “There was never a perjury charge, never a perjury conviction. The judge simply didn’t believe Mr. Rider, but in sloppy language implied that the whole thing was perjury and that laid the groundwork for the counterclaim. Because the court was not clear, this thing got turned on its head.
“The bottom line is that the evidence showed that they were abusing these elephants, which were endangered. The result is pretty horrific. That’s millions of dollars that people have donated for the benefit of animals that’s only going to go towards their abuse. It’s kind of perverse.”
In the end, despite a plethora of underground video showing handlers striking animals with bullhooks, and the testimony in this case, it remains a difficult legal challenge to sue on the grounds of abuse or mistreatment.
Professor Hal Herzog, a psychologist and expert on the ethics of human-animal issues who teaches at Western Carolina University, sees nuances from both sides of the argument. The conflicted morality of circus elephants, though, was so complex that he did not include a chapter in his book “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.”
“I have done a bunch of interviews with circus animal trainers, and I really like these people. I don’t understand their world, I don’t understand them, but I have so much respect for how much they know about animals, how much they care about these animals.
“Is it really worth trucking these animals around the country in this absolutely unnatural situation, and I concluded, no. I really try to stay pretty neutral and scientific on most of these issues, but I came out of the circus thinking, no, this is not justified.
“Basically, these animals were doing stupid pet tricks. With the elephants in particular, it’s about human superiority and domination over a much bigger creature.”