Baby Benjamin's trainer struck him with a bullhook "all over the head, quite forcefully and repeatedly. It was not pretty." David Handschuh/New York Daily News/Getty Image
In December of that same year, two attendants on the Blue Unit left the tour during a stop in Huntsville, Alabama. They called a local animal welfare office, explaining they had quit in disgust over the way the elephants were treated. The woman put them in touch with Pat Derby, a former Hollywood trainer who had founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
Derby arranged for lawyers to take the men's videotaped depositions and written affidavits. The attendants, Glenn Ewell and James Stechcon, had lived transient, sometimes troubled lives, working off and on for circuses. At Ringling, where they mucked out elephant pens and assisted with feeding, they claimed to have witnessed regular elephant abuse and more than a dozen extended beatings during their three months on the road.
Several of the beatings targeted Nicole, a twentysomething elephant named after Kenneth Feld's eldest daughter. Sweet-natured but clumsy, Nicole would frequently miss her cues to climb atop a tub and place her feet on the elephant next to her, Stechcon said in his videotaped statement. "I always rooted for her, 'Come on, Nicole, get up,'" he said. "But we left the show, brought the animals back to their area, and…we took the headpieces off, and as I was hanging them up, I heard the most horrible noise, just whack, whack, whack. I mean, really hard. It's hard to describe the noise. Like a baseball bat or something striking something not—not soft, and not hard…I turned around to look, and this guy was hitting her so fast and so hard [with the ankus], and sometimes he would take both hands and just really knock her, and he was just doing that. And I was, like, I couldn't believe it."
Benjamin, a precocious three-year-old, also suffered frequent beatings from his trainer, Ewell and Stechcon said. Able to balance on a wooden barrel, ride a tricycle, shoot hoops, play musical instruments, and paint a picture by holding a brush with his trunk, Benjamin had appeared on The Today Show and CBS This Morning. His trainer, Pat Harned, told journalists that Benjamin had been trained thanks to rewards of bread or bunches of bananas.
"I turned around to look, and this guy was hitting her so fast and so hard, and sometimes he would take both hands and just really knock her. And I was, like, I couldn't believe it."
The whistleblowers told investigators that Harned also used force. "Pachyderms want to throw things on their back, it's a—it's a genetic response. Anyway, I saw Benjamin, after he was brushed off, take some sawdust and throw it on his back," Stechcon said. That upset Harned, who "dealt with it accordingly, with a bullhook, striking Benjamin all over the head, quite forcefully and repeatedly. It was not pretty."
Derby helped the men file a formal complaint to the USDA. In early January, a senior investigator and veterinarian followed up with a surprise visit to the Blue Unit, on tour near Miami. The USDA team found scars and abrasions on several elephants and a fresh puncture wound on another. Another Ringling employee reported treating hook boils—infected bullhook wounds—"twice a week on average."
But all five trainers and handlers named by Ewell and Stechcon denied abusing elephants or ever seeing anyone else do so. "I have a very good relationship with the elephants, especially the babies Benjamin and Shirley," Harned told the investigator. "There is no abuse of any of the elephants. I treat these elephants as my children."
DeHaven, the animal care unit director, received a report from the senior investigator that none of the allegations could be confirmed. But he also received a complaint from the director of the Eastern regional office about the quality of the investigation. She wrote that the investigator hadn't interviewed the Ringling employees whom the whistleblowers had identified as potential corroborating witnesses, nor had he followed up on the worrisome admission that hook boils were commonplace.
Yet another back-channel note came from Feld Entertainment's corporate counsel, Julie Strauss. She wrote that the company had dug up a past misdemeanor harassment charge against Ewell and a couple of arrest reports on Stechcon for fighting: "We bring this information to your attention so that you may consider whether it is pertinent to your assessment of the reliability of those two former employees' allegations."
Vail advised against proceeding. ("Credibility problem," he told me.) And DeHaven closed the case, writing that he ultimately was swayed by the vehement denials of the accused trainers.
Meanwhile, DeHaven received alarming reports from the USDA investigators who'd conducted a routine inspection of Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation, the $5 million, 200-acre complex the company had opened in 1995 to ramp up its nascent captive breeding program.
On February 9, 1999, two animal care veterinarians arrived and were escorted around by Gary Jacobson, then the center's director of elephant training and now its head. Their last stop was the night holding barn, where they found two baby elephants, restrained with ropes and chains, barely able to move. The elephants, 18-month-olds named Doc and Angelica, each had lesions on their hind legs and scars from healed injuries.
Courtesy Library of Congress"Gary Jacobson said Doc and Angelica were weaned from their mothers on January 6th and that the scars were from rope burns during this process," the vets' report later read. "He described the process as putting a cotton rope around each leg, then a chain around the neck, and leading the baby off with another elephant."
In the wild, elephants suckle for two to four years and remain under their mother's care until their late teens to learn social and survival skills—not unlike humans. But Ringling's elephants can be forcibly removed from their mothers when they are barely more than a year old. (Nearly a decade later in testimony, Jacobson would describe a recent separation of two babies from their mothers this way: "We just grabbed them and tied them up," one for 10 days and the other for four months—except for 40 minutes of exercise a day.)
The inspectors wanted to cite Ringling; DeHaven concluded, "There is sufficient evidence to confirm the handling of these animals caused unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort." Even so, he declined to take action. Instead, he wrote to Feld officials that he felt "certain that you will address this situation to ensure that it does not reoccur."
Two months later, Today Show star Benjamin and a four-year-old named Shirley were being transported by an 18-wheeler from Houston to Dallas when trainer Pat Harned—who'd worked with them since they'd been taken from their mothers—decided to stop overnight at a property owned by the truck driver's father-in-law. In the morning, Harned let the elephants wander into a pond on the property. A little while later, Benjamin was dead. Harned says when he called to the elephants to get out, Shirley came, but Benjamin just dove underwater and died. Experts hired by Feld eventually surmised that he may have suffered a heart attack, though they puzzled over why such a young, healthy elephant would succumb.
Wild elephants suckle for two to four years and remain under their mother's care until their late teens—not unlike humans. Ringling elephants can be forcibly removed from their mothers when they are barely a year old.
A senior USDA investigator interviewed the other witnesses who said Harned struck Benjamin with his bullhook while he was playing near the shore, which is why he swam into deeper water. "The elephant seeing and/or being 'touched' or 'poked' by Mr. Harned with a ankus created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal," the investigator wrote his superiors.
Once again, DeHaven and Vail saw no cause to act. "Benjamin? Give me a break," Vail said when I asked about the incident.
But if the USDA didn't have enough evidence to suspect that abuse—or fear of it—may have been a factor in Benjamin's death, it soon would. Tom Rider arrived on PAWS's doorstep in March 2000. A big man with a wide, friendly face, he'd spent two and a half years feeding and watering elephants on Ringling's Blue Unit. Eventually, he'd provide a USDA investigator with a seven-page sworn affidavit describing 25 incidents of elephant abuse by more than a dozen members of the Ringling crew.
A year before Benjamin died, Rider said he saw Harned strike the young elephant repeatedly with his bullhook in the presence of the adult elephants. Females are very protective, and Karen, an older elephant, began to clank her leg chains aggressively. Harned stopped hitting Benjamin, the affidavit said. "And then he came over there and he started in on Karen for at least 21 minutes, 23 minutes. He had her, jabbing her under the leg, making her raise her foot up and hold it there, hitting her behind the leg, come up and jabbing her in the side," Rider later testified. "Hooking on the head and behind the ears. It just went on and on." Rider also said Nicole was singled out for terrible punishment.
After taking Rider's affidavit, the investigator added a personal observation: "There is no question that he loves the elephants that he worked with, and wants to help them find a better life than what is provided by the circus." She also sent a request to her superiors that Nicole be located and examined, and that her medical records be obtained immediately—to no avail.
The agency "has let many people down (as well as Nicole) on being able to truthfully report the disposition and well being of this animal," the investigator wrote.
Soon after, the case was closed without action.
By early 2000, Derby of PAWS had had enough. She turned to Katherine Meyer, a gregarious blonde who, with her husband, Eric Glitzenstein, ran what Washingtonian magazine called "the most effective public-interest law firm in Washington." The couple met working for Ralph Nader in the 1980s and, after striking out on their own in the 1990s, scored a string of animal rights victories that caught Derby's attention.
Meyer proposed that PAWS file a federal lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, seizing on a provision in the Endangered Species Act that allows citizens to sue violators directly. Such citizen lawsuits had been used to protect endangered animals in the wild but not in captivity. A win would revolutionize animal exhibits.
As part of its multimillion-dollar spying operation on animal rights groups, Feld hired former CIA covert ops head Clair George.
That same spring, two private detectives visited Derby. They explained that they'd been retained by a fired Feld executive to gather evidence of the company's illicit spying on animal rights groups. The former executive had reportedly stiffed them on their fee, so—for $200,000, records show—they offered up 20 boxes of documents on her organization. The materials included purloined records, weekly surveillance reports, and evidence that two Feld moles had infiltrated PAWS by posing as volunteers; one had gained entry to Derby's inner circle. There was evidence of similar schemes against the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Elephant Alliance.
It was part of a multimillion-dollar spy operation run out of Feld headquarters to thwart and besmirch animal rights groups and others on the company's enemies list, according to a stunning Salon piece by Jeff Stein. Feld had even hired Clair George—the CIA's head of covert operations under President Reagan until his conviction for perjury in the Iran-Contra scandal. (George, who died in August, received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush.)
Derby filed a civil lawsuit against Feld Entertainment for racketeering and fraud on June 8, 2000, in the federal courthouse for the Eastern District of California. About a month later, Meyer filed the elephant lawsuit in the federal district courthouse in Washington, DC. Soon after, lawyers for Feld approached Derby with a generous settlement offer on the spy case. They would donate elephants and cash to her wildlife sanctuary if she dropped the elephant lawsuit and refrained from publicly criticizing Feld Entertainment. She agreed.
But the elephant lawsuit limped along with Meyer remaining lead counsel and Rider and seminal players in the animal rights movement—including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and eventually the Animal Protection Institute—as plaintiffs. The case was assigned to US District Judge Emmet Sullivan, a mercurial jurist who quickly tossed the suit for lack of standing; he found that none of the people involved could prove that Feld Entertainment's actions had caused them harm. (Animals don't have standing.) The appeals court overruled him in 2003, at which point Meyer subpoenaed government documents and filed discovery requests with Feld Entertainment. Feld stalled for more than a year until the company's lawyers finally sent word that the records would be delivered on June 9, 2004.
Meyer prepared for a sizable document dump. But at the appointed hour the deliveryman left just two cardboard file boxes of press releases and other innocuous materials. Instead of the detailed veterinary charts Meyer had requested, she got a page or two on each elephant. She pressed, but Feld Entertainment stonewalled.
Meanwhile, the casualties at Ringling were mounting. In early August of 2004, an eight-month-old elephant named Riccardo was euthanized after he broke two legs. A Feld press release explained that he had been playing outside when he climbed, as he often did, onto "a round platform 19 inches high. This time, he lost his balance and fell." Although Ringling denied it, the activity sounded suspiciously like a training drill. Investigators recommended that Ringling be found in violation for failing to provide adequate care after he fell.
On August 20 and 21, an anti-cruelty activist in Oakland, California, videotaped a Ringling handler repeatedly striking a seven-year-old elephant with a bullhook while it was chained. It was Angelica, the same animal USDA inspectors discovered bound and injured at the Center for Elephant Conservation in 1999. This time, they recommended an $11,000 penalty for excessive force and chaining. A regional USDA director for animal care urged his superiors to take action: "Feld Entertainment is a large corporation with a previous enforcement history." Then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama joined the chorus at PETA's request. The cases landed in Vail's office, where they hit a dead end.
But Meyer saw an opening. There had been no mention of Riccardo's birth, let alone death, in the "complete" veterinary records she had received. When Judge Sullivan demanded an explanation, Feld's lawyers responded that their client had recently found a stash of about 2,100 pages stored in the home of William Lindsay, the company's chief elephant veterinarian.
"How could you overlook 2,100 pages of documents?" Sullivan thundered. "If I have to march those CEOs in here for explanations under oath and under penalty of perjury I'll do that…I'm not going to rule out incarceration either. Because I'm sick and tired of all these efforts by litigants to hide the ball…And when I say all, I mean all, every last record."
Deborah Nelson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter as well as the director of the Carnegie Seminar of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter.