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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010

Honoring an icon
Protesters rally to protect elephants as the circus comes to town

By Philippa Stasiuk

Riding a wave of worldwide momentum to ban circus elephants, local activists plan to demonstrate on May 6 when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus arrives in Albany.

Jessica Ryle, founder of Adirondack Animal Rights and one of the leaders of the loosely planned protests, said she believes this year’s demonstrations will draw from a public that is growing more knowledgeable of what circus elephants endure.

“People are starting to become more and more aware of the horrible lives these animals are forced to live, being taken from their families in the wild, kept in tiny cages, transported in extreme weather, and being made to do tricks that they would never do in their natural habitat,” she said. “And people are starting to open their eyes to the beatings and torture used in the training.”

Donna Reynolds, from Castleton, will be leading another group, made up of people she has met while picketing outside other circuses, as well as friends, clients, and students from a local college’s animal law class to whom she has lectured on her favorite topic: elephants.

 Reynolds, an acupuncturist, said her activism first focused on local factory farm animals. But after a friend told her about the live webcam at the Tennessee-based Elephant Sanctuary, she began to learn about the plight of circus and zoo elephants. The 2,500 acre sanctuary houses 17 elephants, all female, that circuses, zoos, or in some cases, private owners, no longer want or are able to keep, usually because of old age or poor health.

“People ask me ‘Why elephants?’ Here’s a culture, a peaceful culture and it’s matriarchal,” said Reynolds. “The babies are raised by their mothers and their big sisters and brothers and aunts and grandmothers. There is no rape in the elephant world. As a feminist and a lesbian, that’s powerful to me.”


Scott Blais, vice president of operations and cofounder of The Elephant Sanctuary, said that eight of the 17 elephants at the sanctuary come from circuses, although none are from Ringling.

“We absolutely have firsthand evidence of what circuses do to elephants,” he said. “It’s amazing how each year another layer of growth unfolds, showing how deeply they suppress who they really are. We see a tremendous amount of arthritis and tuberculosis from circus elephants but there are also behavioral issues.  They don’t know how to function off chains and in a herd and it can take up to three or four years to function again, depending on how much damage was done.”

Blais said that the sanctuary’s eight circus elephants showed “an entire spectrum of dysfunction” when they were released, with bullying and neurotic behavior being the most common characteristics.

“Asian elephant females are not aggressive in the wild but here, two elephants would pick on one, or sometimes four would pick on two,” he said. “Years later, they’re still trying to learn how to function. In the wild, a female’s relationship to the herd is life long. They are a highly social and interactive group and they develop a best friend, called an ‘aunty’ that helps them rear their young. In circuses, some trainers separate the elephants that like each other because they want them to depend on humans for their social interaction.”

Albany ban proposed

The movement to ban elephants from the circus has also entered the debate at the Albany Common Council. Last month, Anton Konev, common council member, introduced legislation that would ban wild or exotic animals on city property.

Unfortunately, says Konov, the common council’s law committee, which is set to research the issue, will not meet until after this year’s Ringling Circus visit. However, if the ordinance passes, it would mean that within Albany, including the Times Union Center where the circus is performing this week, circus animals would not be allowed.

“This is a case where animal abuse exists and it’s proven,” said Konov. “We have videos. We want to take a stand and say this won’t be tolerated in our city. New York City has similar legislation introduced, and it has already been passed by councils and towns throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the federal government has not dealt with this issue so we have to deal with it piecemeal, city by city.”

The videos Konev is referring to are central to the circus protest movement. Taken by members of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they show elephant trainers hitting the pachyderms with bull hooks, sharp metal hooks on sticks specifically designed for controlling elephants. In one of the videos, the elephants being hit are wearing Ringling Brothers attire and are being lined up prior to going into the circus ring. Trainers use bull hooks behind the ears, and on the trunk and legs of elephants where their skin is softer and the hook can pierce the skin.

So far, 16 American towns or cities have outlawed animal acts in circuses. Thirty towns and municipalities have done so in Canada. England is the eighth and most recent country to outlaw live animals in circuses countrywide.

England’s environment minister, Jim Fitzpatrick told the Guardian newspaper that he agreed to ban wild animals in circuses after a public consultation showed that 94 percent of the British public no longer wanted to see wild animals in the circus.

But even in England’s largest circus, there were only three elephants, whereas Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey has over 60 elephants that perform, as well as an active breeding center in Florida where babies, if they demonstrate a docile temperament, are trained for the circus.

Big business

Ten million people come to the Ringling Circuses each year and, according to surveys conducted by a trade organization that represents the Ringling and Shrine circuses, animals rank in the 90th percentile for reasons why people come to their circuses.

“Elephants are the iconic symbol of Barnum and Bailey,” said Enrico Dinges, national public relations director for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circuses. “The guide is a tool used by all elephant trainers throughout the world.”

Referring to the United States Department of Agriculture, he went on, “The USDA has inspected us, even unannounced, and we satisfy all regulations both at state and federal levels.” The guide is what circus representatives call the bull hook.

In December 2009, a judge in Washington, D.C. dismissed a multi-plaintiff case led by the American Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals against Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Circus. The coalition of animal rights groups had been trying for almost 10 years to sue Feld Entertainment over its treatment of elephants but the case was dismissed when the judge ruled that captive animals could not be tried under the Endangered Species Act.

“We were very satisfied with the results of the trial,” said Dinges, “and there is no pending legislation.

The case came as a stunning blow to those trying to outlaw live animals at the circus at the federal level. However, while the animal rights groups clearly lost the case, the evidence that was submitted has been made publicly available on the Internet and has fueled animal rights activism across the country.

While Feld Entertainment emerged victorious, its reputation has also not gone unscathed, an outcome likely to have been calculated by the plaintiffs who took a risk in trying the case under the Endangered Species Act. Circus elephants’ medical records were central to the ASPCA’s argument that the elephants were suffering abuse. While Feld was subpoenaed for those records as early as 2005, only a few records were ultimately handed over after circus representatives claimed that over 2,100 pages were missing. Feld’s defense lawyers were told by the judge at the time that, “Your clients are hiding the ball from you,” according to the trial transcripts.

By 2009, the plaintiffs had acquired the medical records for seven elephants used in Ringling’s Circuses, as recorded by veterinary staff in whichever of the one-hundred plus cities the elephants were visiting at the time of the examination.

The records reveal injuries associated with prolonged leg chaining, standing on hard surfaces for long periods of time, behavioral issues, including loss of appetite, despondency and aggression, and injuries from bull hooks.  Nail cracks, abscesses, and joint injuries were frequently recorded as well.

Most salacious was an entry by a veterinarian of Ringling’s, who described “pools of blood” on the circus floor after witnessing a trainer use a bull hook on an elephant named Lutzi in an attempt to line her up during a show.

“We’re continuing to document how long it takes circus elephants to recover and how deep the damage is that’s been done,” said Blais of the Elephant Sanctuary.

“One of the our primary goals is to create a “mock family” among the elephants, with as little human interaction as possible.” The sanctuary does not even allow public viewing of the elephants, relying mostly on live webcams to observe them.

“They put up with a tremendous amount of agony and they don’t show it,” said Blais. “Most Asian elephants are passive and docile: They endure but it doesn’t make it right.  It doesn’t mean damage is not done.”

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