Volume 42 Number 46

Black exodus emergency

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› sarah@sfbg.com

San Francisco is losing its black population faster than any other large city in the United States — and the trend is unlikely to stop unless the city takes immediate action.

So says a draft report from an African American out-migration task force put together by the Mayor’s Office last year. It wasn’t published in final form early enough to have an impact on the June 3 election, when voters green-lighted Lennar Corp.’s plan to develop thousands of luxury condos in Bayview/Candlestick Point, one of the few remaining African American neighborhoods in San Francisco.

Task force members didn’t get to present their draft recommendations, which include preserving and improving existing housing and producing new affordable housing, until an Aug. 7 public hearing called by Sup. Chris Daly.

The out-migration task force, which used 2005 US Census and state demographic data, places the city’s African American population at 1/16 of San Francisco’s total population in 2005, compared to its two largest minorities, Asians and Hispanics, which make up 1/3 and 1/8, respectively.

"We saw that the African American population has declined by 40.8 percent since 1990, and as a share of the population decreased from 10.9 percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent in 2005," the report states.

"That’s not enough people to fill Candlestick Park," observed Fred Blackwell, executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which has been faulted for deliberately displacing blacks from the Fillmore District during the 1960s and for not doing enough to protect blacks in its Bayview-Hunters Point redevelopment plans.

The task force further projects that the city’s black community will continue to decline to 32,300 in 2050, or 4.6 percent of the total population.

Blackwell cited the lack of affordable housing, as well as a lack of educational and economic opportunity, severe environmental injustice, an epidemic of violence, and lack of cultural and social pride, as the reasons blacks are leaving, or not moving to, San Francisco.

"A lot of people mentioned the notion of being an outsider looking in," Blackwell said. "People can see a Chinatown and a Little Italy, but there wasn’t an area of town that seemed to celebrate the African American community."

The findings were not exactly news to the task force or the black community.

"We could paper the walls of this building with reports that have been made on this issue," said task force chair Aileen Hernandez, citing similar studies in 1995 and 1972.

Fellow task force member Barbara Cohen said the draft recommendations "should have long ago been called the final recommendations."

The Rev. Amos Brown accused Daly of not bonding with the black community. "I’d like to see you coming to church on Sunday, to NAACP meetings, to be down in the trenches, walking arm-in-arm," Brown said. "Let me know next time there’s a NAACP meeting, and I’ll be there," Daly replied.

Calling the city’s black depopulation an emergency, the Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad urged the Board to take the issue out of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s hands.

"It’s time to begin to change the culture of redevelopment," said Muhammad, who wants to establish endangered community zones in BVHP and the Western Addition.

"It’s revolutionary, but doable," said Muhammad, who characterized the city’s Redevelopment Agency as a "cheap grant-hustling operation" after the agency admitted that it cooked a state grant application this May by claiming it needed $25 million so it wouldn’t have to mothball a project the city and Lennar are developing at Hunters Point Shipyard.

Blackwell defended the mayor.

"This is not a set of recommendations that have been sitting on the shelf," said Blackwell, claiming that Newsom is working to implement a violence prevention plan and rebuild public housing.

Blackwell also recommended expanding the agency’s certificate of preference program citywide, an idea that Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has already placed before the Board.

And now, the controller’s big lie

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EDITORIAL Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will get a huge political windfall if the San Francisco Controller’s Office moves forward with a wildly inaccurate estimate of the cost of the Clean Energy Act.

In an Aug. 7 letter sent to the Department of Elections, Controller Ben Rosenfeld wrote that the costs to the city of acquiring PG&E’s local distribution facilities are "likely to be in the billions of dollars." That’s a scary figure, the sort of information PG&E will use to attack the measure. In fact, the company is already sending around flyers calling this a multibillion-dollar proposal.

But it’s completely untrue.

For starters, the Clean Energy Act never mandates that the city buy PG&E’s facilities. The charter amendment, which is on the November ballot, sets aggressive goals for renewable energy and directs city officials to study the best way to achieve those goals. Since public power agencies around the country are leading the way on renewables — and since PG&E has already said it can’t meet even the state’s weak clean energy mandates — the city ought to be looking at taking over the business of selling retail power to residents and businesses. But buying out PG&E’s old system might not be the best way to pursue public power.

But that’s just one flaw in the controller’s reasoning. Because even if San Francisco did buy out PG&E, there would be little or no cost to the city at all.

To understand that, you have to look at the realities of how the measure would work. The Clean Energy Act would authorize the city to issue revenue bonds to buy electric power facilities. Revenue bonds aren’t backed by the taxpayers; they are paid off entirely through a dedicated income stream. So unless the city can prove in advance with a detailed study that buying out PG&E would bring in enough money to cover the costs, there’s no way Wall Street would ever buy the bonds.

In other words, there is no possible scenario under which the Clean Energy Act could cost the city money. The opposite is almost certainly true: public power cities all over the United States make money — often large amounts of money. And our figures have always shown that San Francisco would net millions, maybe hundreds of millions, in revenue from buying out PG&E.

We called Peg Stevenson in the Controller’s Office to ask her about this, and she agreed with us: revenue bonds don’t cost the city any money. Buying out PG&E with revenue bonds wouldn’t cost the city any money. So why does the analysis say the measure could cost billions? "That’s not how I expect people to read it," she said.

But that’s exactly how people will read it. And it’s grossly misleading.

PG&E is already on the attack, and costs will be a huge part of its campaign. In fact, in a July 24 letter to the controller, David Rubin, PG&E’s director of service analysis, argues that the company’s San Francisco system is worth $4.18 billion.

The letter states that PG&E "has not done an inventory of its system" — in other words, the figures Rubin cites are just estimates. And the method PG&E uses to calculate the fair market value of the property is economically and legally dubious, at best.

PG&E insists that the only way to establish a price for the city to pay for a takeover is a method known as "replacement cost new less depreciation." The idea: the city would have to pay the price that it would cost today to replace all of PG&E’s equipment, much of which is old and was purchased (and paid for by the ratepayers) long ago.

The state Board of Equalization, which sets the value of PG&E’s property every year for tax purposes, doesn’t use that method. The board bases its valuation on what’s known as the rate base — the amount of invested capital state regulators allow PG&E to earn a return on. By that standard, the system is worth less than a quarter of what PG&E is claiming (and when tax time rolls around, you can bet the utility isn’t insisting that its property ought to be assessed at a higher value).

Stevenson said the Controller’s Office might replace the term "in the billions of dollars" with a more specific figure. If that’s the case, taking PG&E’s word, and accepting the wildly inflated $4.18 billion figure, would be a clear violation of the public trust.

The Controller’s Office needs to change its statement to reflect, at the very least, the fact that no city money is at risk and that there’s a reasonable assumption that the end result of a public takeover of PG&E would be increased revenue. It should say: "The costs of purchasing or building energy facilities would be substantial — but those costs would be covered entirely by the revenue from operating the facilities. The net cost to the city would, at worst, be minimal and the potential exists for the city to bring in significant new revenue to offset taxes and general fund expenses."

That, at least, is a true and accurate statement.

PS: The supervisors should hold hearings on the economics of this measure and demonstrate how lucrative public power is for cities — and how cheap for ratepayers. Public power is cheaper. Two charts below (PDF) show how public power is consistently less expensive than PG&E’s private power. The first one looks at utilities in California; note that SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, has significantly lower rates than PG&E. The second one, from the American Public Power Association, shows overall rates for public and private utilities state by state.

The relevant line shows public, private and co-op rates, average per kilowatt-hour. Note that public power in California is about one-third cheaper overall.

California ……………….10.9…….15.3……..11.5

www.scppa.org/Downloads/Rates/chart1.pdf

http://appanet.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/PDFs/utilityratecompstate2006.pdf

PPS: We’ve seen these shenanigans from the Controller’s Office for years; see our 1982 story (PDF) on how PG&E forced a misleading statement onto the ballot.

Editor’s Notes

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I didn’t expect much from NBC’s prime-time Olympics coverage, but Jesus, it’s bad.

Forget the all-America, all the time, which is only to be expected. Forget the fact that only the sports that have prominent American contenders get much attention. It’s the reporting and commentary that’s making me sick.

I don’t watch the Olympics on TV to hear for the 12th time about Michael Phelps growing up with a single mother and a driven coach. I buy trashy magazines to learn that kind of stuff. I want to see the games. (I don’t watch football on TV to learn about Brett Favre’s emotional unretirement; I want to see him throw the ball. And if they interrupted the game to give me an "NFL moment" I’d stop watching altogether.)

There are hundreds of events going on, and with the tape delay, we could see all kinds of stuff. The network could be switching from swimming to gymnastics to boxing to swimming … but no: more than half the prime-time show is devoted to truly awful little video clips about the lives of the players, or the age of the Chinese gymnasts (now there’s a hot new story) or someone’s personal tragedy.

Folks: I don’t care. Like most of us, I want to watch sports. Save your trashy specials for 60 Minutes.

And the comments, overall, are just horrifying. Did you know that the Romanian women’s gymnastics team just isn’t the same now that they don’t brutally abuse the children? I mean, look at those errors, that sloppy attitude! The athletes were actually smiling and talking to each other before they took the balance beam, and when one woman fell, she still got a hug from her coach. Back in the days of Nadia Comaneci, that would never have happened. Tragedy what’s happened to that team.

(I’ll give Bob Costas a break — if you get an interview with the president of the United States, you break away from the gym to air it. And he actually asked some professional questions. But watching Bush there, grinning like some kind of nervous idiot with a caffeine twitch, was so creepy it was almost unbearable.)

IN OTHER NEWS: Police Commission member David Campos is making a big stink about Mayor Gavin Newsom’s willingness to violate the Sanctuary City law. His point: if immigrants won’t contact the police for fear of getting deported, the cops can’t do their jobs. That, by the way, was one of the reasons San Francisco became a sanctuary city. He’s asking for a special hearing on this, and I hope it leads the commission to stand up to the mayor and say that it’s more important for SF cops to be able to work with immigrant communities than for Newsom to look tough on immigrants in his campaign for governor.

The Democratic County Central Committee is preparing to endorse candidates for supervisor, but so far, there’s little indication the panel will adopt ranked-choice voting recommendations. In District 9, that seems a shame — there are three good candidates (Campos, Mark Sanchez and Eric Quezada), and two (Quezada and Campos) are Democrats. Voters can choose up to three candidates in ranked order; the DCCC ought to consider doing the same.

Dirty secrets under the big top

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› steve@sfbg.com

The circus has come to town. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest and most profitable show of its kind in history, is in Oakland this week, and will be headed to San Jose next week. Spectators will see trapeze acts, clowns — and animals, particularly elephants, performing the trademark stunts that are considered the highlight of the event.

But the show may soon be over.

Ringling Bros. has been battling with animal welfare advocates for a generation or more, and a landmark federal lawsuit headed to trial in October could finally answer the question of whether rough, regular treatment of endangered Asian elephants by circus handlers constitutes illegal animal abuse.

At stake is the future of performing animals in circuses, particularly this 138-year-old global institution. Circus officials say that if the court prohibits the use of tools like leg chains and the ankus (an elephant training tool that activists call a bull hook and handlers call a guide), they’ll stop touring with elephants — a feature that they admit is their biggest draw.

The case, originally filed eight years ago by three national animal welfare groups and former Ringling Bros. elephant handler Tom Rider, has unearthed a treasure trove of damning inside documents from both Ringling Bros. and the US Department of Agriculture, the agency that regulates circuses and ensures their compliance with the Endangered Species and Animal Welfare acts.

Among the allegations are claims of repeated injuries to elephants by ankus-wielding handlers, efforts to conceal animal abuse from the public and government regulators, the preventable deaths of three baby elephants, prevalence of tuberculosis (the same strain contracted by humans) in elephants and handlers, and a pattern of high USDA officials overriding the enforcement recommendations of agency investigators and ignoring evidence of abuse.

"Ringling Bros. engages in these unlawful activities by routinely beating elephants to ‘train’ them, ‘discipline’ them, and keep them under control; chaining them for long periods of time; hitting them with sharp bull hooks; ‘breaking’ baby elephants with force to make them submissive; and forcibly removing nursing baby elephants from their mothers before they are weaned, with the use of ropes and chains," reads the federal lawsuit filed by American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and Rider. It will be heard in US District Court in Washington, DC, starting Oct. 7.

Despite its major implications, the case has drawn surprisingly little media attention. But it’s a remarkable story, full of juicy documents, an abundance of YouTube video footage that appears to show Ringling Bros. animal abuse — along with Ringling Bros.’ role in derailing the career of a prominent Bay Area television news anchor and the intriguing involvement of shadowy CIA operatives.

Critics say Ringling Bros.’ extensive advertising makes media outlets pull punches, but another reason the circus has avoided bad press may lie with other Ringling lawsuits that contain some astounding revelations of how the circus — or more specifically, circus owner Kenneth Feld and his Feld Entertainment, the world’s largest live entertainment company — treats those who seek to expose its secrets.

DIRTY CIRCUS TRICKS


Power and illusion have always been mainstays of the circus, ever since P.T. Barnum reportedly said, "There’s a sucker born every minute." Elephants and other exotic animals have always been important features of the show as well, going back to the 1860s when James Anthony Bailey displayed Little Columbia, the first elephant ever born in a circus.

The nation’s three largest circuses — Barnum’s, Bailey’s, and the Ringling Brothers — gradually merged into one by 1919 and enjoyed growing popularity until entering into a period of decline during the Great Depression. That decline continued through the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, when more than 100 people died inside a Ringling Bros. tent, and into the 1950s, when television became popular.

But music promoter Irvin Feld began to turn the circus around in the late ’50s, bringing in new acts and increasing the circus’s profitability. In 1967 he bought the company and later passed control of the circus to his only son, Kenneth, who has prospered along with the show.

Kenneth Feld made Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans in 2004, with a reported net worth of $775 million. Feld Entertainment made the Forbes list of the nation’s top companies in 2000, ranking 404th with a reported annual revenue of $675 million and profits of $100 million.

Feld also owns and operates such shows as Disney on Ice, Disney Live, High School: The Musical, and the Siegfried and Roy tiger-taming act.

But all is not well in the Feld empire.

When Feld had a falling out with his top lieutenant, Charles Smith, in 1998, Smith filed a wrongful termination lawsuit that exposed the nefarious inner dealings of "The Greatest Show on Earth," including alleged animal abuse, public health threats, and the use of a top former CIA official to spy on, infiltrate, and sabotage animal welfare activists and journalists.

Among other things, the case brought to light charges that some of the elephants have been exposed to or have contracted tuberculosis.

Joel Kaplan, a former private investigator who worked for Feld, alleged in a deposition in the Smith case that TB was a serious problem among the pachyderms. "I think it’s immoral to have elephants traveling in every arena in the country with tuberculosis," noted Kaplan, who filed his own lawsuit and settled for $250,000. He stated that he had been told by a Ringling Bros. veterinarian that "about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings."

Also included in the case was a deposition by Clair George, the No. 3 person in the CIA until 1987, when he was convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran-contra scandal (he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992). George admitted to working for Feld and conveyed chilling tales of sabotage, including the case of freelance journalist Jan Pottker, who wrote a 1990 magazine profile of the Feld family which included allegations that Irvin Feld maintained a longstanding homosexual relationship outside his marriage.

To deter her from writing a book about the Feld family, George outlined a scheme to have one agent befriend her and another seduce her, spy on her progress, feed her conflicting information, and even get her a book deal on another project to divert her, with a $25,000 advance allegedly paid by Feld.

"I undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld," George wrote in a sworn affidavit. "I was paid for this work by Feld Entertainment or its affiliates. I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr. Feld in personal meetings."

Amy McWethy, a spokesperson for Feld Entertainment, refused to discuss the cases or their implications.

The statements of George and Kaplan describe secret bugging and phone tapping, bribes and clandestine cash settlements to silence critics (including Smith, who settled his lawsuit for $6 million), and infiltration of groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"As part of my work for Feld Entertainment," George wrote in his affidavit, "I was also asked to review reports from [Feld executive vice president] Richard Froemming and his organizations based on their surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of various animal rights groups."

National security reporter Jeff Stein (now with Congressional Quarterly) wrote the definitive account of Feld’s alleged black ops for Salon.com ("The Greatest Vendetta on Earth," 8/30/01), and was also allegedly targeted for surveillance and retribution, according to a story in the May/June 2002 issue of Columbia Journalism Review ("Investigations: The scary circus," by Jay Cheshes).

Stein’s original stories were followed up by 60 Minutes in May 2003, which essentially repeated the allegations.

The next year, KTVU anchor Leslie Griffith got onto the circus story, doing lengthy, investigative reports on the animal abuse lawsuit revelations for KTVU in 2004 and 2005, just as Ringling Bros. was coming to town.

Then Griffith left the station — at least in part because of the backlash she says she felt from both her corporate bosses and Ringling Bros., whose internal documents reveal an aggressive strategy to counter negative media coverage.

A training manual made public as part of the lawsuit outlines how the circus responds to reporters:

"Immediately upon learning about negative stories about Ringling Bros., the Animal Issues Department will put in place the [Rapid Deployment Force]," it states. "The Animal Issues Department will directly contact the editor/news director…. Armed with videos, literature and other information, the Animal Issues Department Head will demand a retraction or equal time and will work in concert with the grass roots campaign…. If the editor/news director refuses the request, Legal will be informed to determine what recourses exist."

Griffith says it was after KTVU was targeted by this effort that she was barred from doing any more circus stories and her relationship with the station began to deteriorate. "All of a sudden my hair wasn’t good enough, my makeup wasn’t good enough — after 25 years of doing the news."

Officially Griffith and KTVU parted on good terms with mutual statements of respect. Even today, KTVU general manager Tim McKay (who was station manager when Griffith left) speaks highly of Griffith, telling the Guardian, "Leslie worked here for a number of years and did a fantastic job."

McKay said he didn’t know about any contact from Ringling Bros. or Griffith being told to back off the circus stories (he said he would check and get back to us, but didn’t as of press time), saying only, "We stand behind the stories as they aired. There was a whole lot of attention given to their accuracy."

But it’s clear that Ringling Bros. was aware of and upset by Griffith’s work. In 2005 Ringling Bros. attorneys argued in court against efforts by the ASPCA and the other lawsuit plaintiffs to obtain financial records and veterinary records on the Ringling elephants, telling the judge: "To shovel this stuff into the public record and try to draw inferences from it, or put it in out of context, lends itself to all sorts of abuse, the very kind of abuse that we contend took place on the San Francisco television station last week."

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered Ringling to turn over the documents, but kept many (mostly the financial documents) under protective seal, keeping their contents hidden from the public.

Griffith, who won dozens of major journalism awards over her 25-year career, says the public suffers when journalists are muzzled. "If they took anything from me," she said, "it was my bully pulpit."

ELEPHANTS AND TB


If Griffith still had that bully pulpit and the ability to freely use it, she told us she’d be talking about mycobacterium tuberculosis in elephants. After doing extensive research into the issue — interviewing top experts and traveling across the country to review voluminous court files — Griffith has come to believe Ringling Bros. Circus poses a serious threat to public health.

"You can talk about the [animal] abuse, but with a worldwide epidemic brewing, I’d say the story is the tuberculosis," Griffith told us. She has been writing periodically on elephants and TB on her blog (lesliegriffithproductions.com), the Huffington Post, and prominent news sites such as Truthout, which published her piece, "The Elephant in the Room," a year ago.

"There are several alarming issues for epidemiologists: drug resistance, inability to diagnose if an elephant has been cured, and disease spreading to handlers who work with them and to the public who attend circus performances," Griffith wrote in the article, relying on public documents and experts on both the circus and infectious disease.

Griffith’s star source has been San Francisco–based epidemiologist Don Francis, who helped discover the HIV virus and became the first director for the Center for Disease Control’s AIDS Laboratory. The Guardian talked to Francis, who has reviewed Ringling documents and concluded that the elephants do indeed pose a threat to public health. He told us he’s particularly troubled by records that appear to show elephants being treated with multiple drugs, meaning they could have multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB), "which really scares me." Ringling denies that any elephants have MDR TB, for which there is essentially no cure.

But Francis remains concerned. "A trumpeting elephant could definitely aerosolize this stuff," Francis told the Guardian — and that would keep small particles of the virus airborne long enough for them to be inhaled by handlers or circus crowds. Children and those with weak immune systems, such as people with HIV, would be especially susceptible to contracting TB from these particles.

Although Francis said he couldn’t say whether any circus attendees have been infected with TB from elephants — and we’ve been shown no evidence that anyone’s ever contracted TB from attending a circus — he sees no basis for Ringling’s claims that the elephants are safe. "I don’t know that anyone has asked the question. I’m not sure anyone has ever tied it together," Francis said.

Both Griffith and Rider maintain that all of Ringling’s elephants have been exposed to TB at one time or another and that the standard annual process used to test for infection — trunk washing — is inadequate to determine if they are carrying and transmitting the virus.

"Every elephant traveling with Ringling has been exposed to TB, and many of them have TB," Rider, a former Ringling elephant handler, told us.

In fact, Kaplan testified in court that he was asked "to find a physician who would test the people in the circus to see if they had tuberculosis but who would destroy the records and not turn them in to the Centers for Disease Control," as the law requires.

Ringling and USDA documents unearthed by the lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests show that at least eight elephants tested positive for TB and that many others have been exposed to them. Ringling veterinarian Danny Graham told the Guardian that two non-traveling elephants are currently being treated for TB, but couldn’t say how many have tested positive in the past.

Yet Ringling officials maintain that active tuberculosis is not a problem in the circus, that their diagnosis and treatment regimens are adequate to protect the health of the elephants, circus employees, and the public, and that no elephants that tested positive for TB have then performed in front of the public.

Graham said the trunk wash, which detects when a TB infection has shed out of the lungs and can be transmitted, is an effective indicator of whether an animal is contagious. "Shedding is when it can be passed to other elephants," she told us. "What our trunk washes look for is a shedding of the bacteria."

Yet Ringling records show at least one case in which the necropsy on a dead elephant, Dolly, showed TB in the lungs even though the trunk wash results were negative.

A Ringling FAQ sheet on "Tuberculosis in Elephants," by Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of veterinary services for Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation, admits that humans and elephants get the same kind of TB. "However there has been no proven case of tuberculosis bacterium being transmitted from elephants to humans," he writes.

He uses a similarly legalistic, underlined approach on questions of whether humans can contract TB from elephants and whether there have been studies indicating so, saying neither has been "proven." And he flatly denies that any elephants have MDR TB.

Two Ringling officials interviewed by the Guardian — Graham and Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship training — went further than Schmitt and flatly denied that any elephants that tested positive for TB ever performed.

"None of the elephants in our traveling unit have ever tested positive for TB," Aria told the Guardian. "No, none of our traveling elephants have ever tested positive for TB," Graham said in a separate interview.

THE USDA INVESTIGATES


But Ringling veterinary records unearthed in the latest lawsuit cast some doubt on the claims of circus officials. Three of the seven elephants that traveled with Ringling Bros. Blue Unit to Oakland — Juliet, Bonnie, and Kelly Ann — appeared in one redacted veterinary document, marked as exhibit "FELD 0021843."

Kelly Ann’s entry includes this notation: "Moved from CEC to Blue Unit. Just finished TB treatment." Juliet was listed as "currently being treated for presumptive TB" and Bonnie had "blood drawn for Tb Elisa," an expensive TB test that often follows a positive reading in the trunk wash test. Documents connected to a 1999 USDA inspection also list Kelly Ann and "Juliette" among 10 elephants administered drugs for treating TB.

Asked whether Kelly Ann has ever undergone TB treatment and informed of the document, Aria told the Guardian, "From my knowledge, that is not true."

McWethy, the Feld corporate communications manager who arranged and monitored our interviews with Aria and Graham, initially said she was not familiar with the document, and even if she was, "the court requested that the parties not discuss the specifics of the suit." In actuality, the judge has not issued a gag order in the case, and plaintiffs spoke freely about details of the case.

Later, after she reviewed the document at our request, McWethy confirmed that Kelly Ann had been exposed to TB in 1999 and that the circus decided to treat her for the disease. "But she’s never tested positive," McWethy said.

In June 2001, the tuberculosis issue was enough of a concern to the USDA that the agency initiated what one official document called an "investigation regarding allegations that Ringling was using known TB-infected animals in circus performances." But information on the results of that investigation was redacted by the USDA from later documents.

In a 2003 report written by the three plaintiff groups in the latest lawsuit, "Government Sanctioned Abuse: How the United States Department of Agriculture Allows Ringling Bros. Circus to Systematically Mistreat Elephants," they conclude: "Although tuberculosis is an extremely contagious disease, and Ringling’s elephants are publicly exhibited throughout the country, including elephants that go in and out of both the breeding and retirement facilities, the public has been kept completely in the dark about this investigation, the agency’s decision to ‘override’ the conclusions of its own inspectors and investigators, and the reasons this investigation was closed with no further action."

WATCHING THE CIRCUS


Feld — the man and his company — are big contributors to top elected officials of both major parties. Campaign finance records show that since 1999, Feld has given at least $104,900 to Republicans and $35,150 to Democrats on the federal level and in his home state of Maryland.

Benefiting disproportionately from Feld’s largesse are members of the House Agriculture Committee (which oversees the USDA). The contributions include almost $10,000 to former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), $6,500 to the campaign and committees of Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (the committee’s ranking Republican), and $6,500 to Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.). Representatives from the two states where Ringling Bros. bases its animals off-season, Texas and Florida, also took in $13,300 and $28,000 respectively, more than those from other states. Animal welfare advocates say Feld’s wealth, power, and political connections have caused the USDA to go easy on Ringling Bros.

"This cozy relationship between the USDA and Ringling Bros. is going to be exposed during the trial," Tracy Silverman, the attorney for Animal Welfare Institute, told the Guardian.

Plaintiffs will make an example of the death of a four-year-old elephant named Benjamin, who drowned in a Huntsville, Texas, pond July 26, 1999 after refusing to heed trainer Pat Harned’s commands to get out. That death came a year after another baby elephant, two-year-old Kenny, died after being used in three circus performances in one day, despite warnings from veterinarians that he was severely ill.

"The United States Department of Agriculture’s final ‘Report of Investigation’ concerning the incident concluded that Benjamin’s trainer’s use of an ‘ankus’ on Benjamin ‘created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal.’ On information and belief, the routine beatings of Benjamin were a contributing factor to his death," the animal welfare groups wrote in the lawsuit.

The USDA investigator recommended Ringling Bros. be charged with vioutf8g the Animal Welfare Act, yet the USDA’s General Counsel’s Office overrode those conclusions and issued its own: "Suddenly, and without any signs of distress or struggle, Benjamin became unconscious and drowned." Ringling and USDA officials say the animal died of a previously undetected cardiac arrhythmia, and the final report omitted any mention of the ankus or behavioral stress.

Animal welfare activists and lawyers say this is just one of many examples of senior USDA officials overriding recommendations of front-line investigators and veterinarians, then blocking access to reports and other evidence that might support or disprove the final conclusions. Indeed, the lawsuit identifies more than a dozen such examples.

USDA spokesperson Jessica Milteer told the Guardian she couldn’t comment on specific examples, but said supervisors are ultimately responsible for interpreting field reports. "Things are pretty much done on a case-by-case basis. We try to work with a facility to come into compliance."

But she said that it’s not true the USDA goes easy on Ringling Bros. because of its power or political connections. She said there are currently two open investigations into Ringling Bros. (she would not provide details) and that facilities like Ringling get annual inspections unless they’re found to have problems or risk factors.

"Since 2005 Ringling has been inspected 52 times," Milteer said, indicating the USDA is indeed concerned about some of the things it has observed at Ringling Bros.

USE OR ABUSE?


Aria, the Ringling trainer, said banning the use of the ankus "would not allow elephants to travel anymore." Feld and other top officials have made similar public statements. She bristled when hearing the ankus referred to as a bull hook. "We call them guides," she told the Guardian. "It is used to reinforce a verbal cue."

Aria and McWethy dismissed videos that appear to show handlers inflicting violent blows on elephants, saying they are often selectively edited and spliced in with footage of non-Ringling elephants and handlers. Activists insist this isn’t true and that much of the footage clearly shows abuse at Ringling Bros. For example, one video shows a person identified as a Ringling Bros. elephant handler striking violently at an elephant after saying on camera that he never does so. Another shows Ringling elephants being paraded through a town and one slow elephant being sometimes pulled along by an ankus behind the ear, with a closeup then showing a bloody puncture wound in the spot.

"From the videos I have seen, so much of it is repackaged and old stuff that doesn’t apply to us at all, not at all," Aria told us.

Graham, who worked for Ringling for the two years she has been a veterinarian and who interned with the circus before that, said she visits the elephants at least once a week and "I have never seen a trainer use an ankus inappropriately." Further, she said, she has never seen an injury she thinks was caused by the ankus: "If I see anything, it’s generally superficial abrasions."

Rider and animal welfare activists say the hook on the ankus is used to inflict pain on the sensitive parts of an elephant, mostly behind their ears or on the backs of their legs, as a negative stimulus to encourage the animals to perform tricks or obey commends. If it was simply a "guide," they say, it wouldn’t need a hook.

But Aria said the ankus is akin to a leash, a means of keeping the elephants near them. "It’s a ‘come-to-me’ cue," she told us. "This comes from decades and decades of use."

Sorting out whether such traditions are actually a form of animal abuse is the purpose of the fall trial.

"The circus is really good at creating the illusion of the happy performing elephants," Kathy Meyer, an ASPCA attorney who has been handling the case from the beginning eight years ago, told us. But she said that it’s clear from the documents, videos, testimony, and common sense that the ankus is often used to inflict pain, which is prohibited under federal animal welfare rules, particularly those governing endangered species, which allow Ringling to have elephants only for conservation reasons.

"So we’re asking the judge to enjoin them to stop them from using these practices," she said.

Many veterinarians and wildlife experts agree that it’s not possible for elephants performing in circuses to be treated humanely. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants last year released a letter signed by 14 leading elephant researchers, with almost 300 years of combined experience working with elephants in the wild, arguing for an end to the practice.

"It is our considered opinion that elephants should not be used in circuses. Elephants in the wild roam over large areas and move considerable distances each day. They are intelligent, highly social animals with a complex system of communication…. Elephants in circuses are bought and sold, separated from companions, confined, chained, and forced to stand for hours and frequently moved about in small compartments on trains or trucks. They are required to perform behaviors never seen in nature," they wrote.

Aria said she didn’t agree with those conclusions, saying she looks out her office window every day: "I see elephants and get to see them all day doing the most amazingly athletic things." And she said only those with a propensity to perform are taken on the road, which is about one-third of their 53 elephants. "You can separate the ones who want to do it from the ones who don’t want to do it," said Aria, who joined Ringling Bros. as a clown in 1972. Later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in special education and worked as a teacher during the ’90s. She was named to her current post in 2006.

"All the elephants here are happy and thriving," Aria said, noting there are only about 35,000 Asian elephants still alive and that many, in places like Sri Lanka where she has visited, are regularly abused and killed. "Good for the Feld family that they support elephants from their births to their deaths."

PRESERVATION OR EXPLOITATION?


The path to the courthouse has been long and difficult, with Feld getting a similar earlier case dismissed and this one moving to trial only after threats and stern warnings by Judge Sullivan against any more stall tactics by the defendants.

"It’s been very difficult to get to this point," Meyer, the ASPCA lawyer, said, adding that that just being able to have their day in court is already a huge victory. "To have this issue aired in a public forum will be helpful for educating the public."

Silverman said she was most shocked by documents obtained by the plaintiffs — and introduced as part of the case — showing elephants chained up to 100 hours at a time, for an average of 26 hours when traveling between shows. "In no way did I imagine the bulk of the evidence that would support our claims," Silverman said. "These animals live their lives in chains."

In addition, many members of the public might not be aware that Ringling Bros. obtains its elephants under the Endangered Species Act for the purpose of protecting and propagating an endangered species, and the ESA contains strict rules against physical abuse of those animals.

"There’s no humane way to have a circus with elephants because it has to travel year-round," Rider told the Guardian. "If you take away the chains and the bull hooks, an elephant isn’t going to do anything."

Rider, who worked with Ringling elephants for more than two years, "saw several of the other elephant handlers and ‘trainers’ routinely beat the elephants, including baby elephants, and he saw then routinely hit and wound the elephants with sharp bull hooks," according to the lawsuit.

Ringling officials such a trainer Aria contend the elephants are well-cared for. Yet she also admits that the elephants are the key to the Felds’ lucrative business empire.

"They are our flagship animal," Aria said. "People come to the circus to see the elephants."

As such, a ruling that goes against Ringling could financially cripple the company, which is why animal welfare advocates say Feld has taken such an aggressive stance with his critics, harassing, threatening, and sabotaging them. As Silverman said, "You see that with Leslie Griffith, and it’s that kind of thing that they do all over the country."

Goat Hill Pizza

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› paulr@sfbg.com

While the denizens of Washington, DC must nourish themselves with Capitol Hill Blue, we of the Blessed Realm have easy access to Goat Hill Pizza, and although there aren’t any goats on Potrero Hill any more, in blue or any other color, the views are still magical, the pizza is pretty good, and a longtime spirit of San Francisco abides, despite the passing of a third of a century and the ebb and flow of various funny-money economic tides.

Goat Hill is more than a pizzeria with a view (though a better view you won’t easily find), more than a place long famed for its Monday night, all-you-can-eat pizza dim sum extravaganza (though a better deal you won’t easily find): it’s a kind of community center, a locus of mingling, with the restaurant’s co-owner, Philip De Andrade, serving as mingler-in-chief as he moves from table to table, chatting and checking. The restaurant’s long walls are regularly hung with paintings for sale, and, on certain warm weekend afternoons, the place becomes a kind of art gallery that smells of linguica and cheap red wine — just the sort of environment in which to stumble across a surviving Beat writer or unheralded master painter.

Goat Hill is a still-glowing ember of a bohemian San Francisco where life’s riches were enjoyed but neither obsessed over nor paraded as status symbols. If, in a sense, it’s an ambassador from the past, it’s an envoy that’s survived a host of Bible-worthy plagues, from earthquake, disease, and fire to the dot-com boom-bust (in with the Porsches, out with the Porsches!) and the long adventure in misrule that began with a stolen election and will eternally bear the name of the unbearable George W. Bush. The little man will be gone soon, holding hands with Dick Cheney in one of their undisclosed locations while Mesopotamia burns, but Goat Hill will still be there, packing them in on Monday nights.

While a wait for a table is generally an annoyance for people who are hungry to eat dinner, the Monday-night wait at Goat Hill is rather festive, especially in mild weather. Clots of people loiter on the sidewalk and in the street near the door, chatting and flirting and occasionally taking the long view down the slope of Connecticut Street to the city’s luminous skyline, which seems close enough to touch. Of all the skyline views I’ve observed over the years, only those on the eastern slopes of Russian Hill are the equal of those on the north face of Potrero. With a view like that, who needs food? And yet, from time to time, the host does emerge from the restaurant to call out a name, and a party of people — maybe a twosome, but just as likely a sixsome or even more — eagerly marches inside.

The dim sum comparison is as old as time, but it isn’t quite apposite. (Visitors to Goat Hill’s arriviste location in the SoMa flatlands will find the all-you-can-eat deal in effect every day.) Whenever I’ve had actual dim sum at a Chinese place, the servers check off little boxes on a tab when we’ve chosen items to eat, so the final bill varies. At Goat Hill, you pay a flat fee (at the moment $10.95 per head), which buys you unlimited access to the salad bar along with unlimited access to the pies that emerge regularly from the kitchen. A pie arrives; its topping is announced, and, as at a Sotheby’s auction, you point or mumble or in some other way indicate an interest, and you are given a slice. But step lively, because the next pie could be just seconds behind. Or, minutes might elapse, an interval in which you can thoughtfully chew your crust rinds. Some of these can look a little scorched.

The toppings themselves show signs of being drawn from the culinary equivalent of an auto dealership’s parts bin. There’s pepperoni, of course, and also pepperoni with sausage, and sausage with mushroom. (No pepperoni with mushroom.) How about ground beef with green onions ("Italian hamburger"), or spinach with tomato and feta cheese, or chicken with sun-dried tomatoes? Green bell pepper makes repeated appearances, as does pineapple, with ham or with sausage, with or without chunks of jalapeño pepper.

Linguica — the garlicky Portuguese sausage — is underrated as a pizza topping; its flavor is every bit as potent as pepperoni’s, but (at least at Goat Hill) it’s richer and less salty. This last is always an important consideration for the pizza eater who is beyond 30 years of age. I love pizza, and I retain an affection for the sort of pizza gluttony Goat Hill enables, but the older you get, the more likely you are to be sorry the next day not to have exercised more restraint in enjoying your pizza. (The pizza crusts, incidentally, are sourdough and find a nice middle ground between crackery and bready, but the rinds nonetheless have a way of piling on paper plates around the tables. Only across the way, at a table filled with avid men in their 20s, did I notice the crust rinds being efficiently dispatched. It was like watching bright-eyed jackals polish off a wildebeest carcass, bones and all.)

The salad bar, amid all this crust, is not an afterthought. Although it has the look of something you’d find at Howard Johnson’s, complete with sneeze shield, it does offer a broad range of non-bloating items, including kidney beans and chickpeas, tomato slices, mushrooms, lettuce, grated cheese, beets, pepperoncini, and, of course, choice of dressing, to be ladled from big crocks. There’s even a view, at no extra charge.

GOAT HILL PIZZA

Sun.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.

300 Connecticut, SF

(415) 641-1440

www.goathill.com

Beer and wine

AE/DC/DISC/MC/V

Noise does not preclude conversation

Wheelchair accessible