All for Show
By Mia MacDonald
E Magazine - November/December 2003
Ringling Brothers Circus Claims to Promote Conservation
On a cool, rainy afternoon, inside Philadelphia's
Wachovia Center, children and parents crowd the cavernous hall trying to
get a closer look at Asia, the elephant who paints with her trunk. Asia
is a star of the "three-ring adventure" in the 133rd edition of the
Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey circus, the largest and oldest in the
U.S. As families mill about they see posters describing Ringlings
efforts to protect endangered Asian elephants. The tagline reads:
"Endangered species? Not if we can help it."
Two hours later, the show wraps up, having featured
elephants (including "five parallel pachyderms" that raise their hind
legs on stools), tigers, zebras, horses, llamas, dogs and a few goats.
The ringmaster thanks people for coming and "helping to support the
world's endangered species." It may sound like an unusual pairing,
protecting endangered species by putting them in the circus, but
Ringling has become an actor in this new arena.
In 1995, Feld
Entertainment, Ringling's corporate parent (which also owns the Disney
on Ice and Siegfried & Roy shows, established the Center for Elephant
Conservation (CEC), a $5 million, 200-acre Asian elephant breeding and
research facility in Polk City, Florida. Since 1992, when Ringling began
a breeding program, 15 elephants have been born, more than anywhere else
in North America, including zoos.
While not all of these elephants will
become circus performers, all will remain captive and have their
performance potential vetted. Ringling now controls 61 Asian elephants,
including the 21 traveling in the circus' two touring units. "We are
really leading the world," says Barbara Pflughaupt, Ringling's national
press representative, with the "largest gene pool outside of Southeast
Asia." Ringling states that a portion, it won't say how much, of all its
ticket and concession sales goes to conservation efforts through the
The CEC is host to elephant trainers, veterinarians and
researchers (including one now studying elephants sense of smell,
potentially to reduce elephant/human conflicts in the wild.) Ringling
suggests that sperm from its male elephants could be used to regenerate
the animals population in Asia, when technology allows.
biologist Tom Dillon, director of the Species Conservation Program at
the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), dismisses this. He says the likelihood of
needing sperm from CEC elephants is close to zero, given diversity in
the wild Asian elephant gene pool and the large number of captive
elephants still in Asia. What Ringling defines as its commitment to
conservation isn't confined to the CEC. In 1998, it helped found the
International Elephant Foundation (IEF), which works in Asia and Africa
to improve management, training and health of captive elephant
populations. It also advises captive breeding programs and, in a few
cases, supports field-based management or research
on wild elephants.
John Kirtland, Ringling's executive director of animal
stewardship and an animal behaviorist by training, says the CECs and
IEFs efforts are still a "work in progress," although the commitment is
there. The work includes assistance to a hospital for injured elephants
(some the victims of land mines).
Ringling's influence is also felt at global meetings on
endangered species and within the U.S. Congress. In 1997, it joined
efforts to pass the Asian Elephant Conservation Act, which has over the
past few years provided more than $3 million for habitat protection,
community-based conservation education, and anti-poaching patrols. WWFs
Dillon calls this "essential money." By some accounts, Ringling's
participation helped secure support for the Act from Congressional
Republicans, many of whom look more favorably on Ringling than on
For years, animal rights and welfare groups have been
protesting Ringling's use of animals, particularly endangered species
such as elephants and tigers. They complain of cruel training, transport
and living conditions, and urge the public to avoid circuses that
include animal acts. Last July, the U.S. District Court in Washington,
D.C. handed animal advocates, including the Fund for Animals and the
ASPCA, a legal victory in their efforts to hold Ringling accountable.
The groups lawsuit, now moving forward, charges Ringling with violating
the Endangered Species Act by abusing elephants through routine circus
practices (using bullhooks, chaining them for long periods, and weaning
baby elephants too young).
A growing number of cities are banning circuses with
animal acts, and activists are not convinced that Ringling has changed.
The lives of elephants born at the CEC "will be filled with chains and
bullhooks," charges Debbie Leahy, director of captive and exotic animals
for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "The fact that
wild populations are still dwindling is proof enough that what they're
doing isn't doing a darn bit of good."
Some animal behaviorists and conservation professionals
are also skeptical about Ringling's conservation work. "They're not
making a substantial contribution," says Marc Bekoff, a professor of
biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder and frequent collaborator
with Jane Goodall. "Its a captive breeding program in Florida."
Conservationists and animal welfare groups agree that
the greatest threat to Asian elephants is loss of habitat, as burgeoning
human populations and extractive industries push into wilderness. Other
threats include poaching for ivory (in contravention of a global trade
ban imposed in 1989) and capture for domestic uses. Since the 1960s, the
elephants historic range has declined by 70 percent. Only about 35,000
Asian elephants still live in the wild.
According to Ringling, running the CEC costs at minimum
$1 million a year. Asked why Ringling doesn't redirect its efforts from
breeding elephants to habitat conservation, Pflughaupt replies: "Habitat
is another thing. We're not a conservation organization. We're a circus
responsible for the care of our animals."
Pflughaupt contends that the elephants are better off
with Ringling. "They're safer with us," she says. "Better off in the
wild is an ivory tower position." But is Ringling practicing
"conservation" as it is commonly understood, or seeking to ensure an
available captive elephant population along with a public that continues
to approve of and demand animal acts in circuses?
On another cold and dreary spring day, about 25 animal
activists gather in front of New York's Madison Square Garden, where the
Ringling Bros. Circus is performing. A poster with a photo of a chained
elephants leg reads: "The slave trade is alive and kicking - elephants
in circuses you choose, they cant."
Activists charge that Ringling has supported a loosening
of the ban on elephant ivory sales at meetings of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Pflughaupt denies
that the company takes a position on the ivory issue. But in 2002, CITES
delegates (with Bush administration support) voted to allow some trade
in African ivory, a move opposed by most conservation and animal welfare
and rights groups. "This is ivory from animals that have already died,"
says Pflughaupt, "and my understanding is that the money would go to
Even a partial reopening of the ivory trade will have a
devastating effect on wild elephants, argues PeTA's Leahy. Another
action that raises activists ire is Felds recent $7,000 campaign
contribution to U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), chair of the House
Resources Committee, who supports trophy hunting and "sustainable use"
(selective culling, including for trophies) of wild populations,
Meanwhile, habitat protection efforts are woefully under
funded. "They're exploiting the Asian elephant for profit and you'd
think they could support its continued existence in the wild," Dillon
says of Ringling. "Its nice they've put money into Thailand's captive
elephant program, but putting the money into conservation of wild
elephants would be a better use of the funds."
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