After seven years of legal fighting, trial began in federal court Wednesday with animal-rights groups accusing Ringling Bros. of violating the Endangered Species Act when it’s use of bullhooks and chains to control the performing elephants.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and other activist groups assert that Asian elephants are injured physically and emotionally by their treatment in the circus. The groups say long hours traveling to more than 40 cities a year by train harms the highly social and intelligent animals,, and they want Ringling Bros. to stop using them in their shows.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, say the activists are just philosophically opposed to animals living in captivity and want to destroy a beloved American family tradition.
During opening statements, the two sides gave vastly different descriptions of the main training tool. Arguing for the animal-rights groups, the ASPCA lawyer showed a bullhook in court and said it’s used to jab, prod and beat the elephants, resulting in puncture wounds, bloody lacerations and infections. The Ringling Bros. attorney preferred the term “guide” when describing the instrument, which he said is used as an extension of the handler’s arm to reach up to the animals. He pushed the hook into the palm of his hand and used it to scratch behind his ear and said even if it might be painful to a human, elephants are much larger animals with thicker skin.
The activists also showed close-up photos of the elephants’ front and back legs, bound with chains to the inside of train cars where Meyer said they can spend up to 100 hours at a time traveling between cities. The circus argues that the elephants are chained primarily at night to keep them from eating one another’s food or picking on their sleeping companions.
The trial judge rejected efforts Thursday by Ringling Bros. to derail the lawsuit alleging cruel treatment of its elephants.