Animal Rights Activists Unleashed

Circus animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel is on trial in California charged with abusing a performing elephant. What’s really being abused, though, is the law. The evidence against Gebel is flimsy and the prosecution is political.

The spectacle would be a complete farce except that a guilty verdict would move animal rights activists closer to achieving their misguided slogan of "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

Gebel, the son of the late circus animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, is with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He allegedly poked a circus elephant with a metal stick to prod the animal along during a performance.

An animal control officer — who belongs to an activist group that opposes the use of animals in circuses — claims to have seen a nickel-sized bloody spot behind the left leg of the 8-feet tall, 8,000 pound elephant.

No witnesses actually saw Gebel make physical contact with the elephant. A veterinarian who examined the animal afterward found no sign of injury. A short time after the examination, the spot disappeared. There is no other evidence of physical injury or breakage to the elephant’s skin.

How did Gebel wind up in the prosecution’s crosshairs?

Elephant abuse is a felony misdemeanor under California Penal Code. The only such law in the nation was enacted in the wake of a 1988 incident at the San Diego Wildlife Park where an unruly elephant was repeatedly struck with sticks to bring her under control.

Since prosecutors didn’t view that incident as constituting "animal cruelty," animal rights activists lobbied to change the law.

Of course, a law is meaningless unless it’s enforced and the police — even in California — have little time to worry about people assaulting elephants. But this is no problem in California’s Santa Clara County where it’s possible for members of non-governmental special interest groups to pick up the slack in law enforcement.

In this case, the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley’s Christine Franco was deputized to investigate animal cruelty allegations, including serving search warrants and making arrests.

Franco attended the circus performance during which Gebel allegedly prodded the elephant. Backstage, she photographed the alleged bloody spot, but didn’t conduct a physical examination. She didn’t wipe the alleged bloody spot to look at the condition of the elephant’s skin and refused to allow an independent veterinarian to examine the elephant before she issued her citation.

Franco, it seems, hoped the photo was all the evidence she would need to convict Gebel of elephant abuse.

Why was Franco so eager to get Gebel? The Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley, you see, "disapproves of the use of non-domesticated animals in circuses." That’s according to the Society’s own position statement.

How convenient — a quasi-governmental law enforcement authority with a built-in bias against a legal activity under its jurisdiction.

Supporting Franco’s testimony in court this week was San Jose Police Sergeant Lynette Williams, who accompanied Franco to Gebel’s performance. Williams is also active in the animal rights movement and recently attended a conference in Washington, D.C. entitled, "New Tactics Banning Circuses."

Topping it all off was the worldwide letter writing campaign launched by the Humane Society to persuade the district attorney’s office to prosecute Gebel. Prosecutor Carolyn Powell said she has gotten hundreds of supportive letters and e-mails from around the world.

This frankly embarrassing prosecution of a widely-respected animal trainer only scratches the surface of the problem.

The trial is a dream come true for animal rights activists — and not just because the trial is bad publicity for the circuses and theme parks that employ animal acts.

Should Gebel be convicted of elephant abuse, a precedent might be set that virtually any injury — however slight — to an animal while under human care is worthy of criminalization. This could dangerously elevate the status of animals in society.

Right now, the public merely abhors and prosecutes cruelty to animals. Activists want much more.

"All animals are equal," is the Sixth Commandment of Animalism in George Orwell’s "Animal Farm." Activists want to expand this egalitarianism to include humans. They believe animals should have virtually the same rights to life and liberty guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution.

The slogan, "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy," after all comes from Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of the largest animal rights activist group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The threat of such rights to the raising of animals for food and the use of animals in medical research should be crystal clear.

The politically inspired persecution of Gebel is another wake-up call alerting us that animal rights activists need to be put back in their cages.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).