Elephant Advocates Press Case In Court

A federal trial under way in Washington, D.C. could affect the way 300 or more captive Asian elephants are treated in the U.S. There's an emotional debate about how best to handle the huge beasts.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A federal trial is under way in Washington that is examining the treatment of Asian elephants in captivity. A coalition of animal rights group has sued Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. It accuses the company of mistreating its performing elephants. The circus denies this. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: Chances are, if you've seen elephants anywhere but on a TV show, you've seen examples of the two primary ways elephants are managed by trainers.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: In the circus and at some zoos, handlers stand right next to the giant gray creatures, using a long tool called the bull hook or ankus. Tony Barthel(ph) at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. says that method is called free contact.

Mr. TONY BARTHEL (National Zoo, Washington D.C.): Free contact means that you're in fact sharing the same space as the animal that you're working with.

(Soundbite of elephant cry)

KEYES: At other zoos and some elephant sanctuaries, the keepers stand immune to elephants, but are separated from the animals by offense of some sort. Barthel says this method is called protected contact.

Mr. BARTHEL: The difference between free and protected contact really has just to do with the set up. The protective contact means if there is a protective barrier you and the animal that you're working with.

KEYES: Barthel says the National Zoo uses both techniques. But discussion about which method is better for the elephants has been part of a sometimes emotional dialogue in the elephant community. Free contact began in Asia, where ahouts have used to ankus to guide and control elephants for centuries. Richard Feronato(ph) was with the Humane Society, an affiliate of one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Ringling Brothers. He believed free contact is based on dominance of animals that weight up to 11,000 pounds.

Mr. RICHARD FERONATO(ph) (Humane Society): That kind of control is achieved through - at some point in the animal's life - getting the point across to her that you are the one in charge, that what you ask her to do, she does. And if she does not, there will be a price to pay.

KEYES: Feronato has 40 years experience working with elephants. He also runs the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which has switched from free to protected contact.

Mr. FERONATO: It eliminates a great deal of the possibility of you being injured by the animal whether that's intentional or not. You no longer have to exercise the same degree of control over the animal.

Ms. HEIDI RIDDLE (Founder, Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Arkansas): That's really incorrect.

KEYES: Heidi Riddle is founder of Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Arkansas. She's also worked for Ringling Brothers as a private contractor. She things there's a lot of misconception about the virtues of protective contact, including the idea that it's safer for elephant handlers because pachyderms can still grab you with their trunks. Riddle has been working with elephants for 30 years now and thinks the best way to handle elephants is what works for these highly intelligent social creatures.

Ms. RIDDLE: Bottom line, I would say that most facilities in this country, regardless of the type of facility they are, use a combination of both in terms of - it really depends on what they want from their elephants and what the disposition of the elephants are.

KEYES: Some activists just want the elephants freed and there are rare cases of captive Asian elephants being released back into the wild to national parks. But captive elephants lack the survival skills they would have learned from their herds. Also, Asian elephants are highly endangered, and their habitat is vanishing. Because pachyderms can live to be 60 years old, that could mean handlers would have to deal with those currently in captivity for decades to come. But the National Zoo's, Barthel, says elephant experts are committed to making sure there are elephants in the wild in the future. Allison Keyes, NPR News Washington.

BRAND: There's more to come on NPR's Day to Day.

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