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Opinion

Ringling Bros., they’re elephants, not clowns

The company behind the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $270,000 as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. The agreement noted that more than a dozen inspections had resulted in reports of noncompliance with regulations, from improper fencing to temporarily losing control over an animal to allowing a zebra to escape. The USDA had also launched four investigations into the circus over the last two years, according to a spokesman, that might have led to findings of more serious violations before the settlement ended all inquiry.

Although the fee is the highest ever assessed against an animal exhibitor under the welfare statute, it’s peanuts for the circus. And Feld Entertainment Inc. did not admit wrongdoing but pledged to institute mandatory animal welfare training for all employees and to designate a compliance officer.

Those are conscientious moves, but Feld should do more. For a decade, animal welfare groups have filed lawsuits and federal complaints against the circus for its handling of exotic animals, particularly elephants, contending that the circus chains them for hours, subjects them to arduous road travel and uses bull hooks to make them comply with commands. The time is long past for elephants in the circus ring. For their part, Feld officials have vigorously defended their operation’s concern for animal welfare. The company’s website says the elephants are well housed, transported and cared for, and perform a scant hour or two on show days. In addition, Feld proudly says it is breeding endangered Asian elephants at its conservation center in Florida.

If Feld officials care as much as they say they do about animals — particularly the planet’s largest land mammals — they should retire them from performance. Short of that, they should retire from the road any elephants suffering from arthritis — the plague of captive, older elephants.

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At a time when zoos are spending millions to find better ways to care for elephants — building them extensive habitats and minimizing or even forbidding unobstructed contact with keepers, thus eliminating the need for bull hooks for protection — this would be a good time for Feld to stop selling the old-school animal circus. Until that time, circus patrons who find animal acts troubling can register their displeasure by not attending. If they want to see a pachyderm, Tina, Jewel and Billy are at the Los Angeles Zoo every day.


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