Armed with banners and signs—some of them cleverly lighted for the nighttime crowd—nearly 200 people circled the block where Banker’s Life Fieldhouse hosted the opening night of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to protest against animal cruelty.
The Indiana Animal Rights Alliance (IARA), a local organization advocating for animal rights, organized the peaceful protest. It wasn’t their first Ringling Bros. protest, but it was their biggest to date.
“In 2011 there were less than a dozen of us,” recalls Leslie Holding. “The message is getting through, word is getting out and more are joining us.”
The goal of the protest was to educate the public about how circus animals are treated. “A lot of people care about animals, but aren’t aware of how they’re really treated,” states Joel Kerr, IARA executive director. He’s convinced that “everybody would support us if they saw the videos.”
Although a spokesman for the circus told the Indianapolis media that accusations of abuse are “completely false,” the group’s claims are supported by facts gleaned from undercover videos shot by PETA, a year-long Mother Jones investigation and a $270,000 fine—the largest in U.S. history—imposed on the circus for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, for incidents dating back to 2007.
Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, the privately held corporation that owns the circus, as well as Disney on Ice, Disney Live and Monster Jam (which, together, provide annual revenues of up to $1 billion, according to a Forbes profile), has admitted under oath that trainers routinely hit the elephants with bullhooks, whip them and use electric prods on them – but says he doesn’t consider that abuse.
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Ringling Bros., claims that bullhooks are approved by the Department of Agriculture and the American Veterinary Association.
However, earlier this year Los Angeles instituted a ban on bullhooks, and other cities are considering similar proposals. Approximately 60 countries have banned the device.
“That’s our next step,” Kerr says. The group has already been in contact with members of the Indianapolis City County Council to inform and educate them about Ringling Brothers’ “long history of abusing animals,” he adds. “We want to show them pictures and videos and talk about the issue.”
An elephant tale
The issue goes deeper than the bite of the bullhook, or ankus. The Mother Jones investigation reveals physical ailments resulting from the Ringling elephants spending most of their lives in chains or in close confinement for days at a time due to their heavy travel and performance schedule.
Forty-eight weeks a year, the circus travels by train to more than 30 cities. Approximately 50 elephants are taken on the road to perform, after being trained using what Ringling claims is “positive reinforcement” and “a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its innate athletic abilities.”
Although Ringling claimed that rest stops allowing the animals to disembark for fresh air and exercise were built into the travel schedule, evidence indicated that orders for 600 trips from 2000 through 2008 included only 14 rest stops. The elephants traveled an average of 26 hours straight, with some trips extending beyond 70 hours without a break. The longest discovered by Mother Jones was 100 hours on a 1,830-mile trip from Lexington, KY, to Tucson, AZ.
With up to five elephants in each boxcar producing approximately 15 gallons of urine and 200 pounds of solid waste in 24 hours, the mess adds up quickly. According to Mother Jones, former circus workers described the stench as unbearable when they opened the cars for water stops … without letting the animals out.
Not surprisingly, the investigation found elephants afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases linked to captivity.
The investigation also reported that nearly 100% of the adult elephants were lame with serious foot problems or musculoskeletal disorders. Their feet were misshapen, ulcerated, abscessed and infected. Twelve of sixteen young elephants suffered from various foot or limb maladies, the report stated. Other ailments included: stiffness, peg-legged, chronic left stifle and sloughing toe nails.
The cause of these ailments was attributed to being forced to stand long hours on hard surfaces, being forced to balance their 8,000-pound bodies on small stands and being confined for long periods, according to Philip K. Ensley, the retired San Diego Zoo handler who reviewed the medical records and testified in court.
Big money from big animals
Elephants are the circus’ biggest draw, according to testimony by Feld Entertainment executives, providing upward of $100 million of revenue. They are the very symbol of the self-described “Greatest Show on Earth.”
As circus officials are quick to point out, Ringling is one of the few places where Americans can see Asian elephants in person. That’s because Asian elephants have been on the endangered species list since 1973; their importation is prohibited by federal law.
Because they can no longer be imported, Ringling breeds them at its well-guarded 200-acre central Florida $5 million facility, which it claims is dedicated to elephant conservation.
Between 2008 and 2011 at least four baby elephants died, all under what Mother Jones described as “disturbing circumstances that weren’t fully revealed to the public.”
There have been other deaths, and other USDA fines for chaining and excessive force.
“Every single time an undercover camera has gone in to videotape behind the scenes, they witness harsh training, using fear and pain,” Kerr says. He challenges Ringling to provide 24-hour live streaming of their elephants so the public could see how the elephants are treated and trained. “They don't want it because if people see what really goes on, they would go under because no civilized person would ever support them again.”
That’s the message animal rights groups like the IARA hope the public gets: stop supporting cruelty. Until they do, Holding says, “I’ll continue to protest until they shut it down.”