WASHINGTON – The treatment of circus elephants went on trial in federal court Wednesday with animal rights groups accusing Ringling Bros. of violating the Endangered Species Act when it uses bullhooks and chains to control its performing pachyderms.
During opening statements, the two sides showed dueling videos that painted vastly different portraits of the animals' lives under the big top.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and other activist groups say they will prove that Asian elephants are injured physically and emotionally by their treatment in the circus.
The groups say long hours traveling to more than 40 cities a year by train harms the highly social and intelligent animals, and they want Ringling Bros. to stop using them in their shows.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, say the activists are just philosophically opposed to animals living in captivity and want to destroy a beloved American family tradition.
Defense lawyer John Simpson said the circus is nothing without its elephants, and the tools are needed for safety and are not harmful to the animals.
"For them to come in here and say they are not against the circus is like saying they aren't against baseball but the use of bats and balls," Simpson said. He said the circus would not shy from the dispute with animal rights proponents, no matter what it costs. "As far as we're concerned, bring it on," Simpson said.
"All right, the battle lines are drawn here," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said as he took the bench for the opening statements. He told both sides it is never too late to settle, drawing laughter from the two sides who have been arguing since the case was filed in 2000.
The two sides gave vastly different descriptions of the main training tool, which resembles a fireplace poker or cane with a metal tip curved down to a point.
Katherine Meyer, arguing for the animal rights groups, showed a bullhook in court and said it's used to jab, prod and beat the elephants on a daily basis, resulting in puncture wounds, bloody lacerations and infections.
Simpson preferred the term "guide" when describing the instrument, which he said is used as an extension of the handler's arm to reach up to the animals. He pushed the hook into the palm of his hand and used it to scratch behind his ear and said even if it might be painful to a human, elephants are much larger animals with thicker skin.
He did not deny that the bullhook sometimes punctures the animals' skin, but said if that is prevented by the Endangered Species Act than so would shots, surgery and other veterinary practices.
Simpson argued that the circus' elephant breeding is helping propagate the species and "may well be their best defense in the battle against extinction."
Feld Entertainment has 54 Asian elephants, 19 which travel and perform and 35 which live at the company's 200-acre conservatory in Florida. The newest, born a few minutes before inauguration day, was named Barack after the new president and was the first conceived by artificial insemination.
The activists showed close-up photos of the elephants' front and back legs, bound with chains to the inside of train cars where she said they can spend up to 100 hours at a time traveling between cities. A video showed three elephants chained up close together in a single box car.
The circus showed a video of two elephants outside the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan, munching on branches set out in the parking lot. An electronic wire pens them in a wide open space, and one elephant puts her foot on a circus barrel while she eats, then nuzzles her companion's ear with her trunk.
Simpson said the elephants are chained primarily at night, to keep them from eating each other's food or picking on their sleeping companions. Simpson said the 8,000-pound elephants go on the train willingly because this is where they eat, drink and travel with their elephant friends.
"They enjoy this experience. They enjoy interacting with these human handlers. It's vigorous physical exercise," he said.
Simpson also said when they retire from circus life the company takes care of them at its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. He showed a clip of elephants in their 50s, eating hay.
Meyer said the circus tries to create the illusion of a happy lives for its signature act, but even at the conservation and breeding center, the animals spend most of their day chained in a barn on concrete, with some never going out on the grass.
In addition to the four animal welfare groups, plaintiffs in the case include Tom Rider, a former circus employee who alleges that he witnessed abuse of the elephants on numerous occasions. Simpson said Rider never complained to Ringling Bros. management and only spoke out after animal rights groups started paying him — a total of $165,000 over the last nine years.