Circus Elephant Abuse Allegations Go To Trial

After more than eight years of legal skirmishing, a trial is set to open Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by animal welfare groups alleging that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus routinely abuses its performing elephants. The circus and its parent company insist the animals are healthy and well cared for.

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A case that could change the way circus elephants are treated will be heard this morning by a federal judge in Washington, DC. Animal rights groups have filed suit against Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The suit alleges that the circus mistreats its Asian elephants. The circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, insist the animals are healthy and well-cared for. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: The crux of this case could be boiled down by the reaction of the plaintiffs and the dependents to the video you hear in the background.

(Soundbite of video of elephant squeals)

KEYES: The plaintiffs sent NPR a link to this YouTube video, allegedly shot in Austin, Texas on July 2nd, 2006. They say it shows Ringling Brothers workers abusing elephants with a tool called a bullhook, leaving bloody marks on the animals' delicate skin. Tracy Silverman, an attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute, describes the object being used.

Ms. TRACY SILVERMAN (Attorney, Animal Welfare Institute): It's got a long handle on it. It's made of usually wood or metal, plastic, fiberglass, and at the end is a sharp steel hook. And the handlers, the elephant handlers at Ringling Brothers, they use this tool in order to control and discipline and train the elephants. I mean and it's a very, very cruel tool that they use.

Ms. MICHELLE PARDO (Attorney): The elephants are not being harmed in the video footage that you've seen from the plaintiff.

KEYES: Michelle Pardo was on Feld Entertainment's legal team and says the video was substantially edited and distorted. She also says the bullhook is a time-tested and appropriate tool.

Ms. PARDO: It's used alongside of a verbal cue and it's used to give directional cues to the elephants much like you would use reins on a horse or a leash on a dog. And Ringling Brothers handlers are instructed in its proper use.

KEYES: The plaintiffs say Ringling Brothers' treatment of its Asian elephants violates the Endangered Species Act. Silverman says the use of bullhooks and the circus's use of chains to tether the elephants for hours at a time breaks what's known as a take provision of the law.

Ms. SILVERMAN: A take is defined as any act that would harm, wound, injure, or harass, or even kill an endangered species and that covers both those in the wild as well as those in captivity.

KEYES: Feld Entertainment's Pardo says there has been no take under the Endangered Species Act.

Ms. PARDO: It's really our position that there's not a shred of evidence that Congress in adopting the Endangered Species Act ever envisioned this law would be used to ban Asian elephants in circuses.

KEYES: Pardo says that Feld spends $6 million a year on animal care and meets or exceeds federal regulations on the care of circus animals. But the plaintiffs insist the elephants are suffering physical and emotional injury and they're hoping for a ruling that bans the bullhooking and chaining.

One elephant expert not involved in this case, Columbus Zoo Assistant Curator Harry Peachy, thinks that the sounds the elephants make, and sometimes their behavior, can be misinterpreted by humans who don't know anything about them. Take the elephants in that video we heard earlier.

Mr. HARRY PEACHY (Assistant Curator, Columbus Zoo, Columbus, Ohio): The sound that you hear in the video is the sound that we refer to as chirping, also squealing. It's generally not something that occurs in a negative context. You'll hear camps make that sound a lot.

KEYES: Peachy says bullhooks work and he says the use of restraints on elephants in moderation is similar to the way some people crate their dogs.

Mr. PEACHY: There are a lot of elephants that look at restraints as kind of a security blanket, and when they are on restraints, they know that things are under control, if you will.

KEYES: Peachy says elephants are much like people and that they come with a variety of personalities, and most are social creatures who want to interact with people and other elephants.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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