Practical Issues > Animals for Entertainment > Circuses

Guest editorial, Asheville Citizen-Times, June 9, 2006
Circus animals aren't adequately protected from mistreatment
by Stewart David

The author of the letter, "Former employee disagrees with writer's take on Ringling Bros.," (AC-T, May 24), offers information on Ringling's Web site as evidence to support his statement, "'not one elephant has been abused by Ringling, nor has Ringling ever received an Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violation." This claim is easily disproved by using objective and credible evidence.

Federal records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that elephants in Ringling's care are routinely subjected to severe ' sometimes fatal ' physical and psychological trauma. Furthermore, these records indicate the federal government has ignored sworn testimony and eyewitness accounts of this abuse.

The AWA, which is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), contains regulations that supposedly ensure the humane care and treatment of animals used by circuses. These standards of care, however, are minimal and don't adequately protect these animals from mistreatment. Enforcement of these regulations is also a problem. The USDA has approximately 100 inspectors who are responsible for monitoring conditions at approximately 13,000 facilities. Most circuses, therefore, are subject only to infrequent inspections.

Even when inspectors find that a circus is not in compliance with the AWA, there is no guarantee problems will be remedied in a timely fashion. Typically, the circus is given numerous chances to remedy non-compliant items and usually reaches a settlement with the USDA before the case goes to court. Therefore, the term "violation'' is not used. However, we shouldn't be misled by semantics. Just because a circus can say it has never (technically) violated the AWA ' that does not mean it has not abused animals or been repeatedly cited for not complying with USDA regulations.

In 1998, a Ringling veterinarian advised trainers that Kenny, a baby elephant, was too ill to take part in the show. The trainers ignored this advice and made Kenny perform. One hour later, he was dead. The USDA determined that Kenny's death constituted a prosecutable violation and filed a complaint against Ringling. However, the federal agency later allowed Ringling to settle the case for $20,000.

Later that year, former Ringling employees provided the USDA with sworn testimony that Ringling trainers routinely use bullhooks to beat elephants, including babies. The USDA ignored this credible evidence coming from people who had nothing to gain by coming forward. It also ignored corroborating evidence, including physical evidence of the beatings and statements from its own experts. No enforcement action was taken and the case was closed. Several months later, one of the trainers accused of beating elephants was involved in the death of one of those baby elephants. Benjamin, who was on tour with Ringling, drowned in a pond. According to eyewitnesses (who were part of the USDA's internal investigation), when Benjamin wouldn't come out of the pond, the trainer went in after him with a bullhook. The investigative report stated the trainer's use of the bullhook "created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal." This statement and the eyewitness accounts were left out of the official memo that closed the investigation. No enforcement action was taken.

Around that same time, inspectors observed "large visible lesions" on the rear legs of two baby elephants at Ringling's Florida compound. They were told by Ringling officials that these scars "were caused by rope burns, resulting from the separation process from the mothers." Even though the USDA concluded "the handling of these two elephants was not in compliance with the AWA regulations," and "there is sufficient evidence to confirm that the handling of these animals caused unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort to these two elephants," it took no enforcement action.

Currently, the USDA has five pending investigations into Ringling for alleged violations of the AWA, including a baby elephant's death, a lion's death, and other instances of abuse.

Maybe incidents like these are the reason why ' in September 2005 ' the USDA's Office of Inspector General found that its Eastern Region office (responsible for the oversight of Ringling) is deficient in inspection and enforcement practices, which compromises the humane care and treatment of the animals. The audit determined no action was taken against violators even after investigations confirmed violations of the AWA.

It is also important to note that handlers don't have to be caught beating elephants to recognize that by their very nature circuses abuse elephants. They take these magnificent creatures out of their natural habitat, prevent them from acting out their instinctual tendencies, keep them constantly confined in chains and boxcars, subject them to fear and intimidation with electric prods and bullhooks, and force them to perform unnatural tricks.

We should not believe Ringling's propaganda, nor should we trust our government to protect wild animals. Instead, we should boycott Ringling and all other circuses until they pledge to stop using animals. To learn more, visit

Stewart David is president of Carolina Animal Action and a retired CPA. He lives in Asheville.

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