Big top blues

Pub date August 12, 2009

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has returned to the Bay Area, this year plagued by even more evidence that circus employees routinely abuse elephants and other animals than existed last year, when we ran our award-winning investigation on the problem (see "Dirty secrets under the big top," Aug. 13, 2008).

As a result, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums has ordered that an animal welfare officer from the city be assigned to monitor the circus’s Aug. 12-16 run at Oakland’s Oracle Auditorium to try to ensure that the animals aren’t mistreated there.

"At this point, the plan is to provide a humane officer from our animal control to monitor the circus," mayor’s spokesperson Paul Rose told the Guardian. Although he hadn’t gotten a response yet from Ringling officials, Rose said Dellums expects the officer to have full access to the circus. "That’s the plan, to be a part of the operations and to provide oversight."

As we reported last year, Ringling Bros. was headed to trial in a landmark civil lawsuit brought by a trio of animal welfare groups and former Ringling elephant trainer Tom Rider alleging the endangered Asian elephants in the circus’s care were routinely beaten with sharp bullhooks and subjected to other forms of abuse, all in violation of the Endangered Species Act and Animal Welfare Act.

After repeated delays, that case finally went to trial in a Washington, D.C. federal court earlier this year, although Judge Emmet Sullivan has yet to issue a verdict. A follow-up hearing was held July 28 and another is set for Sept. 16, after which a ruling could come any time.

"We hope that after that hearing, we’ll have a ruling from him," Tracy Silverman, general counsel with plaintiff group Animal Welfare Institute, told us. They are seeking declaratory relief that would require Ringling to get ESA permits for taking elephants and injunctive relief preventing certain behaviors. "Our lawsuit has precedent-setting potential for all circuses with elephants."

In the meantime, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month released video footage from a six-month undercover investigation that showed various Ringling employees repeatedly beating elephants with bullhooks, something circus officials last year told us doesn’t happen. Officials referred to the tools as "guides."

"Clearly it corroborates everything we said in the trial and have been saying for the last decade," Silverman said of the PETA footage, although she said it was too late for the video to directly affect the trial.

PETA activists appealed to officials in Oakland and other host cities to take some preventive action based on the new evidence. After its stint in Oakland, Ringling heads to San Jose’s HP Pavilion for an Aug. 19-23 run.

"The Mayor’s Office met with PETA to discuss their findings, and we’re reviewing that information and determining the best way to proceed," Rose from the Mayor’s Office told us after the Aug. 7 meeting. Later he told us about the assignment of the animal control officer.

PETA’s RaeLeann Smith said that people have been shocked by the video (which we ran July 22 on the Guardian Politics blog) and that activists will be out in force at the circus showing the video to attendees and trying to persuade them not to go in.

"The video speaks for itself. It wasn’t one employee having a bad day. It was numerous employees on different occasions," she told us. "I believe people will shun the circus once they see this footage."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates Ringling’s treatment of animals, also reviewed the PETA footage and announced that the agency "has initiated a thorough investigation into these allegations."

The agency’s July 28 statement also stated: "Our veterinarians and animal care inspectors are deeply committed to making sure that exhibited animals receive appropriate care and exhibitors comply with the [Animal Welfare] Act. Physical punishment, as alleged in this complaint, is inconsistent with the Act’s standards, and is one of the items our inspectors will look into during their investigation."

Ringling officials did not return the Guardian‘s call for comment, but they previously claimed to treat all animals under their care lawfully and well, and they criticize PETA as a radical animal rights group.

Our story from last year also documented the aggressive tactics Ringling officials have used to silence and retaliate against its critics (at one time orchestrated by former top CIA official Clair George), the political and financial connections of Ringling owner Kenneth Feld, lax enforcement efforts by USDA officials, and the pervasiveness of tuberculosis strains in Ringling’s elephants that are transmissible to humans. Earlier this year, "Dirty secrets under the big top" won first place for best business story in the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club’s annual awards.

Although Ringling is a 139-year-old global institution, there is growing concern in the United States and other countries about animal abuse. The government of Bolivia this month banned the use of all animals in circuses following media reports of animal abuse.

As Silverman said, "The trend is toward better treatment for animals."