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The Cruelest Show on Earth

Bullhooks. Whippings. Electric shocks. Three-day train rides without breaks. Our yearlong investigation rips the big top off how Ringling Bros. treats its elephants.

Dozens of boxes of medical records promptly arrived at Meyer's office. Riccardo's veterinary charts were tucked inside one. He'd been the firstborn of Shirley, the elephant who as a baby swam with Benjamin on the day he died. Subsequently unable or unwilling to perform, Shirley was returned to the Center for Elephant Conservation and was impregnated before her seventh birthday. Elephants enter puberty around 10. In the wild, they practice mothering by babysitting younger elephants, begin breeding in their teens, and give birth surrounded by experienced females who assist and trumpet the calf's arrival to the rest of the herd.

Shirley gave birth on December 5, 2003, at age eight. She was chained by three legs and surrounded by human handlers, who poked her with bullhooks during labor. When the slippery newborn dropped, trainers whisked him away. Riccardo was placed in the care of center training director Jacobson and his wife. His training started at three months, while he was still being bottle-fed. The couple tied ropes to his trunk and feet to get him to climb on the tub or attempt other tricks. By six months, he developed knee problems. "Not laying down, seems to be uncomfortable," read a notation by the animal care staff for June 15, 2004. "Left rear leg, knee appears to be swollen." They administered a painkiller and training resumed. On July 9, 2004, another notation said, "Front leg stiff." He received a painkiller and training resumed.

Four weeks after that entry, the fatal accident occurred. Testimony would later reveal it wasn't during play, as Feld Entertainment had contended, but during a training exercise while being pulled by a rope tied to his trunk onto a 19-inch-high tub.

One of the problems bedeviling the plaintiffs was their inability to line up an elephant veterinarian as an expert witness. And no wonder: Nearly all worked for zoos, which feared for their own operations should the Endangered Species Act protections be extended to captive wild animals. But the plaintiffs lucked into Philip K. Ensley. Recently retired after 29 years at the San Diego Zoo, he agreed to review the evidence.

Ensley pored over medical documentation, regulatory records, and deposition testimony; he inspected the elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation and on tour. He detailed his findings in a 290-page report.

"Nearly 100 percent" of the adult elephants were lame with serious foot problems or musculoskeletal disorders, he found. Their feet were misshapen, ulcerated, abscessed, and infected—no small matter for a four-ton animal forced to spend most of its life standing in place. Twelve of sixteen young elephants suffered from various foot or limb maladies. His analysis read like the shift report at a geriatric ward: "stiffness," "peg-legged," "lameness," "chronic left stifle," "sloughing toe nails," etc.

Courtesy Everett CollectionCourtesy Everett CollectionEnsley blamed the elephants' relentless travel and performance schedule—48 weeks a year—and being forced to stand for long hours on hard surfaces for their injuries. "These are large terrestrial mammals, the largest," he later testified in court. "I think what you're seeing here is an abundance of conditions related to an environment that they weren't genetically programmed for."

The Blue and Red units crisscross the country in trains of 50 cars or more, each covering 16,000 miles annually to perform in 30-plus cities. The company boasts that the animal cars are specially designed with fresh water supplies, fans, misters, and heaters, and it asserts that rest stops are built into the travel schedule to allow the animals to disembark for fresh air and exercise.

Yet Meyer's staff found transportation orders for 600 trips from 2000 through 2008—and just 14 included rest stops. Michelle Sinnott, a young paralegal who postponed law school to work on the case, typed the data into a spreadsheet. Her calculations revealed that the elephants traveled 26 hours straight on average. Some legs extended beyond 70 hours without a break. The longest stretch: 100 hours on a 1,830-mile journey from Lexington, Kentucky, to Tucson, Arizona.

Up to five elephants are crammed in each boxcar. The average elephant produces approximately 15 gallons of urine and 200-plus pounds of solid waste in a 24-hour period. Former circus workers described the unbearable stench when they opened the cars for water stops—during which they typically replenished supplies without letting the animals out.

Feld Entertainment's medical charts made virtually no mention of bullhook injuries. But Ensley found repeated references to scars on the animals' left sides where handlers traditionally stand and at cue points—ears, jaws, anuses, and other sensitive spots that handlers prod to get the animals' attention. He also found evidence elsewhere in the discovery materials.

A Ringling animal behaviorist complained about an elephant hooked so severely that it was "dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show."

"After this morning's baths, at least four of the elephants came in with multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks," a new veterinary technician wrote in 2004 to chief vet Lindsay. "The lacerations were very visible and I had questions at the open house from two members of the public about where they were from."

Another Ringling animal behaviorist told a supervisor in 2005 that she'd been banned from the elephant barn after complaining about an elephant hooked so severely that it was "dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show." She added that she saw the Blue Unit's elephant superintendent, Troy Metzler, "hitting Angelica three to five times…and then using a hand electric prod within public view" during a train unloading in Phoenix. When Meyer deposed Metzler, he admitted to "bopping" elephants if they didn't obey him. He said he did not believe even a forceful strike could hurt an elephant. "They are big tough animals," he observed.

Another Blue Unit handler said he saw three to four puncture wounds a month from bullhooks, but they were considered too inconsequential to record in the medical files. When Ensley inspected the elephants with famous elephant biologist Joyce Poole and two other experts hired by the plaintiffs, they found "extensive evidence of scarring from bullhook use"—including scar tissue on Karen's jaw where a Ringling video had shown a handler embedding a bullhook so deep that he had trouble removing it.

Ensley also found the documentation of rampant tuberculosis that the USDA had sought unsuccessfully for years. In 2000, an agency investigator had been assigned to get to the bottom of allegations that Feld Entertainment was hiding the full extent of TB infections, which can be transmitted to humans as well as other pachyderms. But company attorneys refused to turn over the medical records, and, in an internal memo, the investigator complained that Vail's office did not back her up. (Vail does not recall this.) The discovery materials showed that as of 2008, 19 animals had been diagnosed with the disease. At least three more were discovered to have the disease when autopsied. That's more than a third of Ringling's population.

Faced with such damning evidence, at the March 2009 trial the company shifted its strategy from denying the practices to putting them in the best possible light.

Ted Friend, a professor of animal sciences at Texas A&M University, took the stand for the defense. He testified that the elephants likely enjoyed the train rides, because the long hauls satisfied their "nomadic" urge to roam—a theory Friend said he based on a USDA-funded study that he had conducted for the Journal of the Elephant Manager's Association. Under cross-examination, he conceded that the study had not been peer-reviewed, and that Feld Entertainment was paying him $500 an hour to testify—$100 more than his usual hourly fee and 10 times Ensley's rate.

At trial, Feld's lawyer compared being chained in boxcars for days to wearing a seatbelt. "It's no different than that."

Nevertheless, defense attorney John Simpson, a tall, mustachioed ex-Marine, took up the argument. "They know that when they get on that railcar that they're going to a new place," he told Judge Sullivan. "It stimulates them. The whole concept stimulates them."

"But chains are put on their legs," the judge said.

"That goes with the territory. It's like getting in your car," Simpson said. "It's time to go. Put your seat belt on. It's no different than that."

"The average person doesn't have to sit in their feces, though."

When Jacobson, now the Center for Elephant Conservation's director, took the stand, he conceded that Ringling's baby elephants are hit with bullhooks to train them to follow commands. Sullivan twice pressed him to say whether he considered the training practices to be "humane." Jacobson described them as "better" than they used to be, but under cross-examination he admitted that he conducts the earliest training sessions with baby elephants behind closed doors and never on videotape.

"Why don't you think—what is it about the training that [the public] wouldn't understand?" Judge Sullivan interjected.

"Because everything is kind of Born Free based. Everything has to be free and warm and fuzzy and, you know, we handle elephants and then, you know, they handle thousands of them in Asia, and they tie them up and they have bullhooks, you know, but in the modern world it's just more difficult to explain, Your Honor. It is."

When CEO Kenneth Feld took the stand, he finally admitted that his trainers and handlers hit elephants with bullhooks as a routine method of control and discipline.

"And you have seen Ringling Bros. employees strike elephants with bullhooks, haven't you?" Meyer asked him.

"Strike, hit, touch, tap, yes. Whatever the terminology is you'd like to use, yes," he said.


Feld also acknowledged that employees hooked elephants with the ankuses, whipped, and even shocked them on occasion, but he added that he did not believe any of those practices constituted abuse. And then he got to the bottom line: Without bullhooks and chains, Feld told the judge, the circus couldn't have elephants. And he had no intention of letting that happen.

"I mean, the symbol of The Greatest Show on Earth is the elephant," Feld said, "and that's what we've been known for throughout the world for more than 100 years."

The remarks might have resonated with Sullivan, who questioned whether a single judge should decide how elephants should be handled.

The summer came and went without a decision. PETA released another undercover video of Ringling workers repeatedly striking elephants as they lined up wearing pink "The Greatest Show on Earth" headdresses. ("Fuck you, fat ass," one says as he delivers several unprovoked blows.)

An undercover video of Ringling shows workers repeatedly striking elephants as they lined up wearing pink "The Greatest Show on Earth" headdresses. ("Fuck you, fat ass," one says as he delivers several unprovoked blows.)

On December 30, 2009, Sullivan issued a 57-page opinion that made no mention of the evidence against Feld Entertainment or the torrent of testimony about elephant misery that had rolled through his courtroom. Instead he took singular aim at Rider, the whistleblower. Adopting the defense's argument, he wrote that payments Rider received from animal groups to talk to the press about Ringling proved his motives were mercenary—even though the arrangement was modest ($190,000 over 10 years) and had been disclosed to the judge, who had raised no objections. Sullivan cited a photo the defense had produced of Rider holding a bullhook (Rider said he never used it) as further evidence the former barn man didn't really care about the elephants and thus had no standing to sue on their behalf. He ruled the animal welfare groups weren't harmed by Ringling's treatment of its elephants and so didn't have standing either. "Because the Court concludes that plaintiffs lack standing, the Court does not—and indeed cannot—reach the merits of plaintiffs' allegations," he wrote.

That March, just ahead of the cherry blossoms, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus marched its prized herd of elephants around Capitol Hill, an annual rite announcing the arrival of its traveling show. But this time, instead of swinging east of the Capitol, as it had in the past, the procession veered west, heading straight into the dark canyon of buildings that make up the federal courts complex. Lead defense attorney Simpson, in a brown leather bomber jacket, strode alongside the animals as they passed directly under Judge Sullivan's window.

The plaintiffs appealed, but on October 28, 2011, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, upheld Judge Sullivan's decision on standing. Feld Entertainment is pursuing sanctions and more than $19 million in legal expenses, alleging they and their lawyers conspired to pursue a fraudulent case against the circus. Meanwhile, the elephants' fate is back in the hands of the USDA. In 2010, PETA asked for a status report on the USDA's six-year-old investigations into Angelica, Riccardo, and a young lion that died in a train trip across the desert. The agency responded that the statute of limitations had run out. So last March, PETA petitioned the agency to reopen the cases and revoke Feld Entertainment's exhibitor's license. The organization also took the trial evidence to the Federal Trade Commission, asking that Feld Entertainment be barred from claiming its elephants are trained with positive reinforcement. Both matters are pending, as are investigations into subsequent videos and reports of abuse. Vail said he considered the "fuck you, fat ass" incident a clear-cut violation but added that he thought TB would prove to be a much bigger problem for Feld Entertainment. New guidelines for TB are under consideration that would utilize a faster test to identify infected elephants—potentially complicating logistics for touring circuses, which also could face the prospect of state health officials turning them away. "That's probably going to be the downfall of Feld's elephants," Vail predicted.

One final note: During the trial, Feld Entertainment called Kari and Gary Johnson as their leading experts in industry standards for elephant care and management. The Johnsons are the proprietors of Have Trunk Will Travel, an elephant rental company in Southern California that supplies elephants for rides at fairs, weddings, commercials, and movies. The USDA also has tapped them to conduct agency staff trainings.

Recently one of their elephants, Tai, starred as Rosie in Water for Elephants, a movie that depicts circus animal abuse. The Johnsons claimed that in real life Tai had been trained humanely. But in May, Animal Defenders International released a 10-minute video compilation from 2005 of the Johnsons and other trainers repeatedly striking and shocking elephants. At one point, the video captures Tai's cries as a trainer shocks her with an electric prod to get her to perform a headstand.

In a written statement, the Johnsons said the video was heavily edited, that none of it was taken during training for the movie, and that "you can make something look like anything to suit your purposes." But they don't deny that the images show the methods they use to train elephants.

A spokesman for the USDA said an inspector was dispatched to "fully look into the matter" and "turned up no evidence of abuse."

Front page image: Jonathan Bruck/Flickr

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