Elephant Cruelty Under the Big Top: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Finally Exposed in Federal Court Trial

by Tracy Silverman, Esq.

“The elephants I grew to know and love at the circus were beaten daily with sharp bull hooks and chained like prisoners for hours on end.”
—Tom Rider, former Ringling Bros. employee

After nearly nine years of intense legal wrangling, the Animal Welfare Institute’s (AWI) landmark case against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ parent company, Feld Entertainment, Inc., for elephant mistreatment finally went to trial on February 4 in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. AWI and its co-plaintiffs (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute, and former Ringling Bros. barn man Tom Rider) were represented by the public interest law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal at the trial which lasted approximately six weeks.

Since the Asian elephants that Ringling Bros. uses to perform in its shows across the country have been listed by the US government since 1976 as an endangered species, this case was brought under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a federal law which protects all such animals. Section 9 of the ESA prohibits the “take” of any endangered species, which is explicitly defined to include “harm,” “wound,” and “harass.”

As alleged in the lawsuit and argued at trial, Ringling Bros. harms, wounds and harasses its elephants in violation of the ESA in two specific ways: 1) by the routine practice of hitting the elephants with instruments including bull hooks (also known as ankuses) in order to force the elephants to do what they are told, as well as to correct, discipline and punish them if they fail to do so; 2) by the use of chains to routinely confine the elephants for prolonged periods of time on hard surfaces.

Evidence of Ringling Bros.’ Routine Bull Hook Use
Over the years, Ringling Bros. has consistently denied that it routinely hits its elephants with instruments such as a bull hook, a two- to three-foot-long club with a sharp metal hook and pointer on the end. However, the evidence presented at trial clearly shows otherwise. In fact, when Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld took the stand, he testified that not only has he personally observed the Ringling Bros. handlers strike the elephants with bull hooks, but that all of the handlers engage in this practice.

Evidence that the elephants, whose skin is particularly sensitive in certain areas commonly targeted by handlers, are routinely struck with bull hooks was also elicited through the testimony of several former Ringling Bros. employees. Tom Rider, who worked for the circus for two and half years, feeding and cleaning up after the elephants, described the bull hook use he observed as “frequent” and “excessive.” Recounting two specific instances to the court, Rider described one occasion when an elephant was repeatedly hit after refusing to lie down on command, resulting in more than twenty bull hook marks on her body, and another occasion when an elephant was beaten with a bull hook for more than 20 minutes because she was rattling the chain on her leg used to keep her restrained. Rider also testified that "wonder dust" was often applied to mask the elephants' cuts and wounds.

Other former Ringling Bros. employees corroborated Rider’s testimony, including former animal care providers Archele Hundley and Robert Tom, Jr., who testified that the Ringling Bros. elephants endure daily bull hook abuse. They both described a severe beating when a handler rammed a bull hook into an elephant’s ear and hit her for more than 35 minutes because she would not lie down on command. Similarly, Margaret Tom, who worked for Ringling Bros. from 2005 through 2006, cited another bull hook beating that resulted when an elephant defecated on a dancer during a show.

Frank Hagan, who is now deceased, worked for Ringling Bros. on and off between 1993 and 2004. He testified in a videotaped deposition that the handlers use bull hooks aggressively and forcefully and that there were times when he saw handlers swing bull hooks like baseball bats at the elephants. Former Ringling Bros. animal caretaker Gerald Ramos, who left the circus after one week in 2006, also testified by way of deposition that he witnessed a baby elephant whacked on the head in such a manner.

Further testimony regarding bull hook cruelty inflicted on the Ringling Bros. elephants was provided by former San Jose, Calif., Police Sergeant Lanette Williams, who attended inspections of the circus when it came to California. Sergeant Williams stated that she observed elephants with lacerations and puncture wounds caused by bull hooks and described seeing an elephant "stabbed" with a bull hook by a Ringling Bros. handler when she attended an inspection in 2001.

Some of the most horrifying evidence was presented in the form of video footage, some of which was taken by witness Pat Cuviello, a member of Citizens for Cruelty-Free Entertainment. Mr. Cuviello, who has been monitoring the circus for about 20 years, took the stand and described how the elephants are hooked, hit, jabbed and threatened with bull hooks. He also testified to having seen Ringling Bros. handlers use brooms and pliers on the elephants.

The name of Ringling Bros. employee and long-time elephant handler, Troy Metzler, often came up at trial before he even took the stand. Nicknamed “Captain Hook” for his frequent and exceptionally cruel use of bull hooks, Metzler was filmed striking a young elephant under the chin and on the trunk, footage that was entered into evidence. An internal Feld Entertainment e-mail stating that Metzler was observed hitting an elephant three to five times before using an electric prod on her within public view was also entered into evidence.

Evidence of Ringling Bros.’ Routine Chaining
For years, Feld Entertainment has vehemently denied allegations put forth in this case that its elephants are chained for the vast majority of their lives. In fact, Feld Entertainment maintains on its website that “Ringling Bros. elephants spend most of their day moving about freely in their enclosures and in the arena …” and that “… most of their waking hours are spent at play, socializing, exercising and learning new routines.” However, an overwhelming amount of evidence was presented at trial establishing that these highly social and intellectually curious animals, who are biologically wired to be on the move, are in fact routinely chained for extended periods of time.

In addition to the testimony of former Ringling Bros. employees that the elephants are chained by two legs for the majority of the day, every day, and sometimes for days at a time when traveling on trains, Gary Jacobson, general manager for Ringling Bros.’ euphemistically named Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC) admitted that the elephants maintained at that facility spend 16 consecutive hours chained by two legs on concrete flooring every day, while other elephants are chained daily for 22 consecutive hours on concrete flooring. Such testimony flies in the face of Feld Entertainment’s public relations materials, which boast that the elephants kept at the so-called CEC “can roam and socialize to their heart’s content.”

Video footage of the elephants chained in barns, on trains, and outdoors was also presented at trial. While outside, the animals are at times lined up and chained to a central stake and placed on “picket lines" reminiscent of chain gangs. Videotaped footage subpoenaed from Washington, DC’s MCI Center (now renamed the Verizon Center) showed the elephants chained for prolonged periods of time on a concrete floor.

Corroborating the testimonial and visual evidence of Ringling Bros.’ routine chaining practices were Feld Entertainment’s own transportation orders showing how much time the elephants spend on the trains that transport them from venue to venue across the country for about 40 weeks each year. These records reveal that the elephants are chained on unyielding train surfaces for an average of more than 26 consecutive hours at a time, and that they are often chained on the trains this way for stretches lasting 60 to 70 hours—and sometimes lasting as long as 90 to 100 consecutive hours.

Evidence that Ringling Bros.’ Routine Practices Harm, Wound and Harass the Elephants
As lead counsel, Katherine Meyer indicated in her opening statement, “Feld Entertainment places a high premium on the illusion for the public that the endangered elephants it uses in its circus are happy, healthy and thriving.” This illusion, however, was broken down over the course of the six-week-long trial as evidence of the physical and psychological harm caused to the elephants unfolded day after day.

Despite statements made on the stand by Feld Entertainment’s witnesses that bull hooks used at Ringling Bros. Circus do not hurt the elephants, an internal letter written by a Ringling Bros. animal behaviorist revealed that an elephant was “… dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show from being hooked,” while another internal Feld Entertainment document authored by a Ringling Bros. veterinary technician indicated that “[a]fter this morning’s baths, at least four of the elephants came in with multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks.” Additionally, Ringling Bros.’ handler Robert “Sonny” Ridley, who has been with the circus for almost 40 years, stated in his deposition that he sees puncture wounds caused by bull hooks at least three to four times a month, and stated in a sworn affidavit to the USDA that he also sees hook boils (infected puncture wounds caused by bull hooks) on the elephants an average of twice a week.

Several of the world’s leading experts on elephants testified as to the psychological harm caused to the elephants as a result of Ringling Bros.’ routine practices. With more than 30 years of experience studying elephants in the wild, Dr. Joyce Poole explained that the bull hook injures and harasses the elephants emotionally by making them so fearful of exhibiting their natural behaviors (such as exploring their surroundings and socializing with other elephants) that they cease to act like normal elephants. She and others, including Ros Clubb, PhD, of Oxford University, a leading expert on stereotypic behavior in elephants, also testified that the repetitive swaying, bobbing and weaving exhibited by the Ringling Bros. elephants can be attributed to the prolonged periods of time they spend confined on chains and is evidence that they are experiencing stress and poor welfare.

The testimony of Philip Ensley, DVM, on the health of the elephants was particularly compelling. Dr. Ensley, a board-certified veterinarian who worked for the San Diego Wildlife Park and Zoo for 29 years, testified against Feld Entertainment based on his attendance at two court-ordered elephant inspections and the 1,300 hours it took him to review the medical records of all the Ringling Bros. elephants. Though Feld Entertainment tried to withhold this critical documentation from the court, the corporation finally turned it over after two separate court orders. Dr. Ensley testified that while some of the elephants have more serious health histories than others, all of the elephants appear to suffer from similar conditions, including lameness, stiffness, arthritis, osteoarthritis (degenerative foot disease), pressure sores, abrasions, lacerations, lesions, and overly worn feet, as well as nail bed cracks and abscesses. He indicated that these conditions appear not just in the older elephants, but also uncharacteristically in the younger ones, and that such conditions are precipitated by their routine handling by Ringling Bros. staff.

The defense attempted to counter Dr. Ensley’s testimony with that of Ringling Bros. Chair of Veterinary Care and Director of Research and Conservation, Dennis Schmitt, DVM. Dr. Schmitt testified that the Ringling Bros. elephants are “bright, alert, healthy [and] active.” However, he later admitted that some of these same elephants suffer from tuberculosis, bull hook marks, sprains, strains, nail cracks, nail bed abscesses, stiffness, arthritis, and weight loss.

While the evidentiary portion of the trial has concluded, the parties are now required to file some additional briefs with the court. The Honorable Emmet Sullivan, the judge presiding over the case, may also ask the parties to come back to court for further argument once final briefs have been submitted. Whether or not the endangered Asian elephants in the Ringling Bros. Circus will be afforded the protections outlined in the ESA is in the hands of Judge Sullivan, but regardless of the outcome—or the potentially lengthy appeals process—one thing is for certain: the cruelties under the big top have finally been exposed for the whole world to see.

Archival document; for complete account, please see http://awionline.org/cases/protection-asian-elephants.