Endangered Species Act Used to Sue Circus

Animal-rights groups are suing the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, citing a provision of the Endangered Species Act. It is the first time that the federal law, normally used to protect endangered species in the wild, is being used as an argument to protect the Asian elephants that are part of the circus act.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Every crowd has a silver lining, said the famous showman P.T. Barnum, but he may have thought twice after seeing a crowd of animal rights protestors at his circus.

CHADWICK: Animal rights activists are now using the Endangered Species Act to sue the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. This may the first time that that law--it's normally used to protect endangered species in the wild--so this may be the first time its used for captive animals.

Gloria Hillard has this report.

GLORIA HILLARD reporting:

The 135-year-old Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has come to town.

Unidentified Announcer: Welcome to the greatest show on earth, here, young ladies and men.

HILLARD: Only today, large sports stadiums have replaced the traveling big top, and not far from the circus barker with the blinking clown nose, you're likely to hear this:

Unidentified Man: The animal torture show. This is the saddest show on earth.

HILLARD: Animal rights protestors have been a familiar scene at the Ringling Circus in the recent years.

Unidentified Man: Animals here have been brutally beaten for your entertainment.

HILLARD: Now, those allegations are part of a federal lawsuit charging the circus is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The endangered animal in this case is the Asian elephant. Ringling Brothers has 54.

Catherine Meyer, a public interest lawyer representing the plaintiffs, says the suit is based on three claims.

Ms. CATHERINE MEYER (Attorney): One is that the use of these sharp bull hooks to beat and train the elephants to do tricks in the circus. The second is that the constant chaining of these massive animals, which Ringling Brothers does for up 20 hours a day. And the third claim is that the forcible removal of baby elephants from their mothers also violates the Endangered Species Act.

There have been a number of baby elephants who have died over the years, and that's one of the things we're trying to get to the bottom of in our lawsuit.

Mr. DARIN JOHNSON (Spokesman, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus):

This is just another attempt by animal activists to try to discredit Ringling Brothers' strong reputation as an animal caregiver, steward, and especially our dedication to the conservation of the Asian elephant.

HILLARD: Ringling spokesman, Darin Johnson.

Mr. JOHNSON: And I think what all of our audiences will see time and time again is that our elephant population is healthy and robust because of the great care and exercise and enrichment that they're receiving every day.

HILLARD: Johnson also disputes whether the Endangered Species Act even applies to Ringling's operation. The circus, he says, is abiding by the Animal Welfare Act and has never been found in violation of that law by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, the plaintiff's hope that they'll have more success with the Endangered Species Act. They point to a provision in the ESA that prohibits the killing, harassing, or harming of an endangered animal.

At the center of the debate is whether wild animals, especially elephants, should be used for human entertainment at all.

Ms. CAROL BUCKLEY (Cofounder, Elephant Sanctuary): These elephants are all from the same family. That's Billy. They're all females.

HILLARD: Carol Buckley has been on both sides of the fence. For years, she worked as a elephant trainer for circuses. After a change of heart, she founded the 2,700-acre Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. She now believes the circus is the last place an elephant should be.

Ms. BUCKLEY: They are highly intelligent. The elephant is very conscious of everything that's going on in their environment. They're very clear about it. They know what it is. They know what's going on. The idea of taking a wild animal out of its habitat and taking advantage and exploiting its intelligence and its physical abilities is unconscionable.

HILLARD: Bruce Read, Ringling's Vice President of Animal Stewardship, says the tricks Ringling's elephants perform are based on their natural behaviors in the wild.

Mr. BRUCE READ (Vice President of Animal Stewardship, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus): Young elephants teach us what behaviors really look cute and can be repeated. We take something that we see as a natural behavior, reward when that happens, and then we through repetition, and the animal does this in a sequence. We put music to it, and that's how we get a show together.

(Soundbite of music)

HILLARD: The scientific community is divided on the issue of whether the trained behaviors of the performing elephants would also be seen in the wild.

Dr. Lynette Hart of UC Davis has studied Asian elephants in India. She says there is no simple yes or no answer, pointing out that in some parts of India, domesticated elephants have lived with and been trained to work with humans for centuries.

Dr. LYNETTE HART (Director, UC Center for Animal Alternatives): The relationship, of course, I would say is in a way the most ancient and intense and well-developed relationship of any with an animal. They have a phenomenal brain, and they can be trained to do very specific things that are helpful, such as logging, such as moving objects from here or to there. They don't have a repertoire of tricks. Only very occasionally, an elephant might be trained to do something like pump the water pump or something like that. But that's extremely unusual.

Unidentified Announcer: (Unintelligible) The greatest show on earth!

(Soundbite of cannon)

HILLIARD: The Ringling Brothers trial does not have a scheduled court date. For now, there's just the ongoing one in the court of public opinion.

Unidentified Woman #1: Do not pay Ringling Brothers to gouge elephants in the face.

Unidentified Woman #2: Please leave me daughter alone.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's called freedom of speech, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #2: I know.

Unidentified Man: It's private property.

Unidentified Woman #2: My freedom of speech is just as important as yours.

Unidentified Man: Ours is...

HILLIARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hilliard.

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