When It Comes to Elephants, Is the Circus the Most Abusive Show On Earth?

The ASPCA just ended a 12-year legal battle with the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Who’s left to defend the elephants?

(Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Tents go up, clowns bus in, and elephants parade down the street, trunk to tail. It's a familiar scene when the circus comes to town. Like in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, there's an eerie element to the sweet smell of cotton candy, and evil eventually ends up wreaking havoc on good. Yet in this story, good loses over evil by giving up to big money.

On December 28, 2012, the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) ended its 12 years of litigation with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus producer Feld Entertainment, Inc. The animal rights group fought a long and arduous battle against the circus over animal abuse issues, but without one formal shutdown in the circus' 163-year history.

"The ASPCA concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation," said ASPCA President and CEO Ed Sayres, in a press release. "We are glad to put this matter behind us so we can focus most effectively on our life-saving work, preventing cruelty and improving the welfare of animals."

MORE: Wild Animals Under the Circus Big Top: Amusement or Abusement?

As a result of its decades-long legal battle, the nonprofit now owes Feld Entertainment, Inc. $9.3 million for allegedly paying former circus employee Tom Rider $190,000 to serve as a plaintiff in a 2009 lawsuit against the circus.

"Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses," said CEO Kenneth Feld, in a statement. "This settlement is a vindication not just for the company but also for the dedicated men and women who spend their lives working and caring for all the animals with Ringling Bros. in the face of such targeted, malicious rhetoric."

While the travelling circus may be hiding behind their donations to animal wildlife campaigns and conservations, as well as the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, these so-called good deeds don't make it immune to the actual historical facts.

Way back in 1850, P.T. Barnum founded his Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum, and Menagerie. He hired "native assistants" in Sri Lanka to capture magnificent wild elephants and bring them back to America by way of ship. Barnum wrote in an autobiography that the expedition "killed large numbers of the huge beasts," but 11 live elephants endured a 12,000-mile voyage to New York City, one of which died and was dumped overboard. The Greatest Show on Earth was formed with the Ringling Bros. shortly after.

After Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 the circus' Asian elephants—now numbering 50—made the endangered list, according to a fabulous new report from Mother Jones. This prompted Feld Entertainment, Inc. to pour "tens of millions of dollars into PR campaigns that portrayed the elephants as willing performers, as well as legal firepower to keep regulators and activists at bay."

In the early 1970s, Gunther Gebel-Williams became the face of the circus' "positive reinforcement campaign." Problem was, he routinely whipped elephants and struck them with bullhooks, or ankuses, which Feld Entertainment rebranded as "guides," despite their ability to pierce through elephant hide.

In 1999, after Performing Animal Welfare Society's Pat Derby helped former circus workers file a complaint to the USDA, the department found scars and abrasions on several elephants and one fresh puncture wound in the Blue Unit, on tour near Miami. Five trainers and handlers accused by the former circus workers denied all allegations of abuse.

Also in 1999: Inspector Ron DeHaven found that Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation was not necessarily a safe haven. "There is sufficient evidence to confirm the handling of these animals caused unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort," he testified, according to legal documents.

Feeling threatened by the investigations, Feld ran a multimillion-dollar spy operation to thwart more activist efforts, going so far as to hire Clair George, former CIA head of covert operations under President Reagan. Pat Derby filed a civil lawsuit against Ringling for fraud on June 8, 2000, but accepted a generous settlement and cash for her wildlife sanctuary in return for dropping the case. Big money was winning over the good-hearted.

In 2004, the USDA finally suggested an $11,000 penalty against Ringling for excessive chaining and whipping when a video surfaced of an injured Ringling Elephant Conservation patient that was being abused by a handler. Even with PETA and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's support, the case hit a dead end.

And, according to Mother Jones, in 2008 Feld Entertainment was also hiding the fact that more than a third of Ringling animals had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, which could have easily spread to humans.

So, lawsuits and counter-espionage self-protection. What's next for P.T.'s circus?

In Los Angeles, for example, the city council will soon consider a measure to ban the circus within city limits, thereby joining six Southern California cities that have already done so.

Unfortunately, "For the circuses, profit is always the priority," PETA spokeswoman Lindsay Rajt told the New York Times. "Any time animals are used for profit, you're going to see corners cut on their welfare, because it's not the top priority."

If you want to do something about banning elephant performances in your city, write to your city council and make it their priority.

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