Ringling Bros. faces allegations of elephant abuse

Tom Rider, who used to be a “barn man” for Ringling Bros., said that when he worked there in the late 1990s, he regularly saw handlers of the circus’ endangered Asian elephants abusing the giant creatures.

He said they used long, sharp-hooked poles, “hitting them in the legs, hooking them behind the ears” and leaving gashes the size of his finger.

Ringling denies the allegations, saying it has never been cited for animal cruelty. But today, a nearly 9-year-old legal case over the elephants’ treatment will come to trial in U.S. District Court.

Using the Endangered Species Act instead of animal cruelty laws, Rider and several animal welfare groups will testify that Ringling abuses its elephants by using a hooked pole, sometimes called a bull hook, that the suit says punctures the animals’ leathery hide where skin is most sensitive. The animal rights groups also allege that Ringling trainers chain the beasts together for 70 hours at a time.

But Michelle Pardo, a lawyer for Feld Entertainment Inc., which owns Ringling Bros., said the circus’ elephants were “healthy, alert and thriving,” and noted that the circus regularly passed federal, state and local inspections.


Pardo described the lawsuit as part of animal activists’ “long-running crusade to eliminate animals from circuses, zoos and wildlife parks.”

She said the circus’ training practices were “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 agreed that other methods were less effective.

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

Derby, now president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, a nonprofit animal welfare organization based in Northern California, practices training methods based on trust, cooperation and food rewards, which she said didn’t always work.

Diana L. Guerrero, who has more than 30 years’ experience training elephants at zoos, said positive reinforcement techniques like those employed by Derby took longer to teach. But this method has grown in popularity, she said, because it “makes the general public feel better about training.”

Preference for a particular training method is “a matter of palatability,” said Guerrero, of Big Bear Lake, who conducts seminars on animal training.

Much of the plaintiffs’ case rests on the testimony of Rider, who described his responsibility as a barn man for Ringling between June 1997 and November 1999 in one sentence: “Never take your eyes off the elephants.”

Rider said he never did -- and saw the elephants’ handlers mistreating them.

Rider said that in one instance, he saw a trainer beat Karen, a particularly petulant elephant whom circus workers called “the Killer,” for nearly half an hour while he and his co-workers looked on silently, fearing that if they asked the trainer to stop they would lose their jobs.

In addition to Rider’s testimony, the plaintiffs will show videos and photographs that they say illustrate abuse of the elephants, Silverman said, as well as an e-mail sent to Ringling supervisors from one of the company’s veterinarians that questions “multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks” found on four of the elephants after their baths one morning.

The plaintiffs’ fight for humane treatment of Asian elephants focuses on Ringling’s elephants, but they hope a ruling that the circus’ practices are illegal would “send a message” to other organizations that use similar practices.

“Certainly it is a problem” at other circuses, Silverman said. “It’s not just at Ringling Bros.”

Pardo said Ringling was committed to caring for its elephants, both on the road and at its 200-acre conservation center in Florida, where a new addition to the Ringling family, baby Barack, was celebrated on the eve of the presidential inauguration last month.

Ringling spends more than $60,000 annually on each of its 54 elephants, which are attended to by a team of three full-time and two part-time veterinarians and other care specialists, Pardo said.