The Cruelest Show on Earth: Our yearlong investigation rips the big top off how Ringling Bros. treats its elephants

Deborah Nelson, The Cruelest Show on Earth. Mother Jones, November/December 2011. “Bullhooks. Whippings. Electric shocks. Three-day train rides without breaks. Our yearlong investigation rips the big top off how Ringling Bros. treats its elephants…. Elephants are smart, social creatures that communicate through a complex score of rumbles, trumpets, and gestures; they also have long memories and the capacity to celebrate, mourn, and empathize. Feld Entertainment portrays its population of some 50 endangered Asian elephants as ‘pampered performers” who “are trained through positive reinforcement, a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its innate athletic abilities.’ But a yearlong Mother Jones investigation shows that Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.”

Excerpts from story:

Despite years of denials, Kenneth Feld [CEO of Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s corporate parent] has now admitted under oath that his trainers routinely “correct” elephants by hitting them with bullhooks, whipping them, and on occasion using electric prods. He even admitted to witnessing it.

But perhaps more disturbing still is the government’s failure to act. Since [1998]…the USDA [US Department of Agriculture] has conducted more than a dozen investigations of Feld Entertainment. Inspectors have found baby elephants injured and bound at Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Whistleblowers have stepped forward with harrowing accounts of beatings. Activists have released even more videos of elephant abuse, and local humane authorities have documented wounds and lameness.

None of that has moved regulators to action.

Circus oversight rests with the animal care unit in the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS]. Officials there, as at Feld Entertainment, were not willing to be interviewed. So I called W. Ron DeHaven, who headed the animal care unit from 1996 until 2001 before ascending to lead all of APHIS from 2004 to 2007. (He is now executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.)

During DeHaven’s tenure at the USDA, a 2005 audit by the department’s inspector general criticized the animal care unit for being too lenient on violators. The report singled out the Eastern region, which oversees Ringling’s operations, for its failure “to take enforcement action against violators who compromised public safety or animal health.”… [DeHaven said] “You don’t take on an organization like Feld Entertainment without having strong evidence to support it.”

Save for modern sound and lighting systems, today’s circus hasn’t changed all that much from the spectacle created by P.T. Barnum, the corpulent showman who delighted audiences with midget Tom Thumb, faux mermaids, and soprano Jenny Lind (PDF).

By 1850, Barnum…had a traveling menagerie that featured an elephant or two. But he imagined an entire herd, so he dispatched agents to sail to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where they hired 160 “native assistants” to search the jungles. The most daring waited until an elephant napped against a tree. They would tickle a sensitive spot on the elephant’s hind leg and, when it lifted its foot to shake off the nonexistent insect, slip a noose around its ankle. The expedition “killed large numbers of the huge beasts,” Barnum wrote in an autobiography. But 11 live ones were hoisted into a ship’s hold for the 12,000-mile voyage to New York City. One died en route and was dumped overboard. Barnum paraded the rest down Broadway harnessed to a chariot, and they became the featured attraction of a new traveling show, Barnum’s Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum, and Menagerie….

By the time Irvin Feld [he acquired Ringling in 1967] died in 1984, leaving his son, Kenneth, to run the show, animal rights organizations were proliferating. Zoos began adopting an emerging animal management philosophy called “protected contact,” which controls animals with physical barriers instead of sticks and chains. But this was of little use to the circus, where direct interaction between humans and wild beasts is the point. Feld Entertainment faced a conundrum: The audiences still wanted to see elephants—but they wanted to see them treated nicely.

So the company poured 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. Gebel-Williams [Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s legendary golden-haired animal tamer] got a makeover. A press release lauded his “animal training based on mutual respect and positive reinforcement” that “forever changed the standards of animal training.” It’s true that Gebel-Williams had an extraordinary rapport with the animals, but it’s also true that he routinely whipped elephants and struck them with bullhooks. A few months after Kenny’s death, Gebel-Williams was spotted whipping a baby elephant in the face outside a circus train in Mexico City.

Nonetheless, the sleight of hand worked. When Gebel-Williams died in 2001, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune‘s obituary noted that he had “substituted humane, positive reinforcement and reward for the fear and force upon which many animal trainers rely.”

The biggest challenge for Feld Entertainment’s “positive reinforcement” campaign was the ubiquitous bullhook or ankus. It’s a malevolent-looking instrument, about three feet long, with a sharp, metal point-and-hook combination at one end. The point is for pushing. The hook, inserted in the mouth or at the top of the ear, is for pulling. Both are sharp enough to pierce elephant hide….

In December of [1998]…, two attendants [Glenn Ewell and James Stechcon] on the Blue Unit left the tour during a stop in Huntsville, Alabama. They called a local animal welfare office, explaining they had quit in disgust over the way the elephants were treated. The woman put them in touch with Pat Derby, a former Hollywood trainer who had founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

With fiery orange hair atop a stout physique, a gravel voice, and a talent for attention-grabbing tactics, Derby had been Ringling’s No. 1 antagonist for more than a decade. Her supporters organized protests outside performances and shot videos of trainers hitting elephants….

Derby helped the men file a formal complaint to the USDA. In early January, a senior investigator and veterinarian followed up with a surprise visit to the Blue Unit, on tour near Miami. The USDA team found scars and abrasions on several elephants and a fresh puncture wound on another. Another Ringling employee reported treating hook boils—infected bullhook wounds—”twice a week on average.”… But all five trainers and handlers named by Ewell and Stechcon denied abusing elephants or ever seeing anyone else do so….  DeHaven closed the case, writing that he ultimately was swayed by the vehement denials of the accused trainers….

In the wild, elephants suckle for two to four years and remain under their mother’s care until their late teens to learn social and survival skills—not unlike humans. But Ringling’s elephants can be forcibly removed from their mothers when they are barely more than a year old….

By early 2000, [Pat] Derby of PAWS had had enough [of investigations and cases being closed without action]. She turned to Katherine Meyer, a gregarious blonde who, with her husband, Eric Glitzenstein, ran what Washingtonian magazine called “the most effective public-interest law firm in Washington.” The couple met working for Ralph Nader in the 1980s and, after striking out on their own in the 1990s, scored a string of animal rights victories that caught Derby’s attention.

Meyer proposed that PAWS file a federal lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, seizing on a provision in the Endangered Species Act that allows citizens to sue violators directly. Such citizen lawsuits had been used to protect endangered animals in the wild but not in captivity. A win would revolutionize animal exhibits….

Elephants enter puberty around 10. In the wild, they practice mothering by babysitting younger elephants, begin breeding in their teens, and give birth surrounded by experienced females who assist and trumpet the calf’s arrival to the rest of the herd.

Shirley gave birth on December 5, 2003, at age eight. She was chained by three legs and surrounded by human handlers, who poked her with bullhooks during labor….

One of the problems bedeviling the plaintiffs was their inability to line up an elephant veterinarian as an expert witness. And no wonder: Nearly all worked for zoos, which feared for their own operations should the Endangered Species Act protections be extended to captive wild animals. But the plaintiffs lucked into Philip K. Ensley. Recently retired after 29 years at the San Diego Zoo, he agreed to review the evidence.

Ensley pored over medical documentation, regulatory records, and deposition testimony; he inspected the elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation and on tour. He detailed his findings in a 290-page report.

“Nearly 100 percent” of the adult elephants were lame with serious foot problems or musculoskeletal disorders, he found. Their feet were misshapen, ulcerated, abscessed, and infected—no small matter for a four-ton animal forced to spend most of its life standing in place. Twelve of sixteen young elephants suffered from various foot or limb maladies. His analysis read like the shift report at a geriatric ward: “stiffness,” “peg-legged,” “lameness,” “chronic left stifle,” “sloughing toe nails,” etc.

Ensley blamed the elephants’ relentless travel and performance schedule—48 weeks a year—and being forced to stand for long hours on hard surfaces for their injuries. “These are large terrestrial mammals, the largest,” he later testified in court. “I think what you’re seeing here is an abundance of conditions related to an environment that they weren’t genetically programmed for.”

The Blue and Red units crisscross the country in trains of 50 cars or more, each covering 16,000 miles annually to perform in 30-plus cities. The company boasts that the animal cars are specially designed with fresh water supplies, fans, misters, and heaters, and it asserts that rest stops are built into the travel schedule to allow the animals to disembark for fresh air and exercise.

Yet Meyer’s staff found transportation orders for 600 trips from 2000 through 2008—and just 14 included rest stops. Michelle Sinnott, a young paralegal who postponed law school to work on the case, typed the data into a spreadsheet. Her calculations revealed that the elephants traveled 26 hours straight on average. Some legs extended beyond 70 hours without a break. The longest stretch: 100 hours on a 1,830-mile journey from Lexington, Kentucky, to Tucson, Arizona.

Up to five elephants are crammed in each boxcar. The average elephant produces approximately 15 gallons of urine and 200-plus pounds of solid waste in a 24-hour period. Former circus workers described the unbearable stench when they opened the cars for water stops—during which they typically replenished supplies without letting the animals out.

Feld Entertainment’s medical charts made virtually no mention of bullhook injuries. But Ensley found repeated references to scars on the animals’ left sides where handlers traditionally stand and at cue points—ears, jaws, anuses, and other sensitive spots that handlers prod to get the animals’ attention. He also found evidence elsewhere in the discovery materials….

Ensley also found the documentation of rampant tuberculosis that the USDA had sought unsuccessfully for years. In 2000, an agency investigator had been assigned to get to the bottom of allegations that Feld Entertainment was hiding the full extent of TB infections, which can be transmitted to humans as well as other pachyderms. But company attorneys refused to turn over the medical records, and, in an internal memo, the investigator complained that Vail’s office did not back her up. (Vail does not recall this.) The discovery materials showed that as of 2008, 19 animals had been diagnosed with the disease. At least three more were discovered to have the disease when autopsied. That’s more than a third of Ringling’s population.

Faced with such damning evidence, at the March 2009 trial the company shifted its strategy from denying the practices to putting them in the best possible light….

When CEO Kenneth Feld took the stand, he finally admitted that his trainers and handlers hit elephants with bullhooks as a routine method of control and discipline.

“And you have seen Ringling Bros. employees strike elephants with bullhooks, haven’t you?” Meyer asked him.

“Strike, hit, touch, tap, yes. Whatever the terminology is you’d like to use, yes,” he said.

Feld also acknowledged that employees hooked elephants with the ankuses, whipped, and even shocked them on occasion, but he added that he did not believe any of those practices constituted abuse. And then he got to the bottom line: Without bullhooks and chains, Feld told the judge, the circus couldn’t have elephants. And he had no intention of letting that happen.
“I mean, the symbol of The Greatest Show on Earth is the elephant,” Feld said, “and that’s what we’ve been known for throughout the world for more than 100 years.”

Sources for Deborah Nelson’s investigation, The Cruelest Show on Earth, from the November/December 2011 issue of Mother Jones.

The Associated Press, Ringling Brothers to Eliminate Elephant Acts by 2018. The New York Times, 5 March 2015.

The New York Times Editorial Board, Why Not Retire the Circus Elephants Now? 6 March 2015.