Animal Activists Hope Lawsuit Protects Circus Elephants
An Animal Rights Article from


April 2009

The future of circus elephants awaits a decision from a federal judge in Washington. The court heard six weeks of testimony in a case brought against Ringling Brothers Circus, whose owner is from Las Vegas.

This week, the most experienced animal welfare experts in the country are in Las Vegas for an expo organized by the Humane Society and the elephant trial is on the tip of their tongues.

The trial was held in Washington, but Las Vegas plays a role in this drama on both sides. Las Vegas impresario Kenneth Feld, the principal owner of Ringling Brothers Circus, is one of those who testified. He told the court his circus earns about $100 million a year and his endangered Asian elephants are the big draw.

The Elephant Sanctuary

Animal activists meeting in Las Vegas understand why the public is drawn to elephants but think circuses are inherently cruel.

Carol Buckley walks the walk. She was a featured speaker at this year's expo because of a lifetime of work with circus elephants, including 14 years running The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee where abused or abandoned elephants get to live out their days in a natural setting, far from the big top.

It took eight years for animal welfare groups to haul Ringling Brothers Circus into federal court to face accusations of cruelty to endangered Asian elephants. Buckley was an expert witness in the trial and while she can't talk about her testimony, it's clear she thinks a traveling circus is no life for an elephant.

"The biggest thing about elephants is they require a huge space, and it's not simply to find food, it is how they are designed. They need to be walking, moving, interacting," she said.

But in the circus, "They are required to be kept on chains or kept in a small enclosure. They're not allowed to make normal posturing. They're not allowed to live with normal elephants -- definitely very detrimental."

During the six week trial, the plaintiffs' unveiled considerable evidence showing Ringling trainers routinely beating and abusing elephants with the dreaded bullhooks, an instrument the circus admits it needs to keep the elephants under control. But is it a violation of federal law?

"It is clear based on the evidence that the elephants are being struck with bullhooks and chained continuously for hours and days at a time, both of which we believe are violations of the endangered species act. And we hope Judge Sullivan will see it that way," said Tracy Silverman with the Animal Welfare Institute.

That's the question on the minds of Humane Society activists meeting in Las Vegas. A decision in the Ringling case is not expected until the summer.

For animal crusaders like Linda Faso, the wait is excruciating. She's campaigned on behalf of elephants since the 80's. Two of the survivors who made it to Carol Buckley's sanctuary had ties to Las Vegas and Faso was instrumental in saving both of them.

Misty, who traveled with the Shriners Circus, even after she attacked a cruel trainer, came back to Las Vegas in the mid 90's, which is when the I-Team found her during a rest stop. Misty is now alive and happy at the sanctuary and no longer performs tricks.

Jenny, another circus veteran, landed at Betty Honn's facility in Henderson, which is where we found her in the mid 90's, her leg fused and swollen from performing.

The late Honn helped Faso get her to a better place. Misty spent her last 10 years living like an elephant, not a carnie.

"She had 10 years at the sanctuary. She thrived. She was the family maker, the one who brought all the elephants together because she liked elephants, she liked family," said Buckley.

The Ringling Circus says its elephants have always received the best care and treatment, in part because the animals are so valuable.

Tracy Silverman says even if the judge sides with the circus, the attention generated by the trial has educated the public about the plight of circus elephants, which could mean fewer families willing to buy tickets.

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