Ringling Brothers Will Stand Trial for Elephant Abuse
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


September 2007

WASHINGTON (Aug. 23, 2007) – Today, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the federal district court in Washington D.C. issued a major ruling rejecting the last-ditch attempt of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to avoid trial over charges that the circus abuses its Asian elephants in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The groundbreaking lawsuit, brought by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, The Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute, and Tom Rider, a former employee of Ringling Bros., alleges that the circus violates the Endangered Species Act by abusively training and disciplining elephants with sharp implements such as bullhooks, by intensively confining and chaining the multi-ton animals for prolonged periods, and by forcibly separating baby elephants from their mothers.

“The ASPCA is delighted with today’s ruling, which paves the way for the real case at hand: whether Ringling Brothers violated the Endangered Species Act in its treatment of the elephants,” stated ASPCA Senior Vice President Lisa Weisberg.

In its ruling, the Court scolded the circus for “wast[ing] a considerable amount of time and resources” of the Court and the groups by engaging in “dilatory” delay tactics over several years. The Court had previously ruled and today reiterated that the circus had repeatedly withheld critical evidence, in violation of a Court order.

“After five years of legal wrangling, we look forward to unveiling the curtain at trial to expose the suffering and death of elephants at the hands of the so-called ‘Greatest Show on Earth,’” said Tracy Silverman, General Counsel for the Animal Welfare Institute. “These magnificent animals will finally have their day in Court.”

In today’s ruling, the Court also recognized the important “public policy in favor of protecting the animals from unlawful harassment or harm.”

The Court further admonished that “promoting the public interest in the preservation of such species will remain an ever-present threat to those seeking to unlawfully harm such species."

“Today’s strongly worded decision shows that the Court has run out of patience for Ringling Brothers’ stalling ploys,” said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. “This trial will come not a moment too soon, as Ringling’s elephants continue to suffer every day from abusive discipline and prolonged chaining.”

The Court also rejected Ringling’s attempt to interject baseless counterclaims against the plaintiffs, and to harass the plaintiffs with discovery on irrelevant issues. The Court ordered all further discovery to be completed by the end of the year, and a trial date is expected soon.

“We’re excited to move forward with this case and hope the spotlight continues to shine on the use of inhumane chains and bullhooks and Ringling’s cruel behind-the-scenes treatment of elephants,” said Nicole Paquette, General Counsel and Director of Legal Affairs at the Animal Protection Institute.

The plaintiffs are represented by the public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.


  • Witnesses and former circus employees have given sworn testimony to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as recently as October 2006, that behind the scenes at circuses, elephants are kept tightly chained by one front and hind leg and unable to move freely. In the wild, elephants travel many miles each day. There are reports of circus elephants being confined this way up to 20 hours or more each day. Research shows that this leads to psychological and physical problems such as arthritis, crippling foot problems, and behavior that is indicative of high levels of stress.
  • As recently as July 2006, undercover investigators have videotaped trainers beating elephants, contrary to statements that the animals are trained exclusively through positive reinforcement. The lawsuit alleges that trainers use a stick with a sharpened metal hook on the end (called a "bullhook" or "ankus") to repeatedly beat, pull, push, torment and threaten elephants.
  • In a January 2005 e-mail, Ringling's own "Animal Behaviorist" recounted to Ringling's General Manager that she saw an elephant named Lutzi "dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show from being hooked," after a handler "hook[ed] Lutzi under the trunk three times and behind the leg once in an attempt to line her up for the T-mount." A "T-mount" is a stunt where two elephants and at least one person stand on the back of a kneeling elephant.

Copies of these documents are available upon request.

  • August 23, 2007 – U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan issues a ruling rejecting Ringling Brothers’ attempts to have the case dismissed, and permitting the plaintiffs’ case to proceed to trial.
  • October 2006 – In response to a court order, Ringling discloses its own internal veterinary records revealing severe abuse at the hands of Ringling's elephant handlers.
  • September 2005 – The federal district judge assigned to the case announces that he will "incarcerat[e]" Ringling's lawyers and executives if they do not turn over critical veterinary documents that were required to be produced much earlier in the litigation.
  • February 2003 – A unanimous panel of the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia finds that the plaintiffs have standing to sue Ringling Brothers for its mistreatment of Asian elephants.
  • June 2000 – Animal welfare groups file suit against Ringling Brothers in federal court in the District of Columbia under the Endangered Species Act to stop Ringling's inhumane and unlawful mistreatment of highly endangered Asian elephants.
  • July 1999 – Baby elephant Benjamin drowns in a pond when traveling between Ringling shows; witnesses state that he was evading his Ringling handler who had chased him with a bullhook.
  • February 1999 – USDA cites Ringling after inspectors observe large rope burn "lesions" on two baby elephants – Doc and Angelica – caused by forcibly separating the babies from their mothers well before the end of their natural weaning period.
  • January 1998 – USDA concludes that baby elephant Kenny dies after being made to perform by Ringling despite the fact that he was extremely ill.

Media Contacts:
Shonali Burke/ASPCA: 212-876-7700 x 4565, [email protected]
Tracy Silverman, Esq./Animal Welfare Institute: 703-836-4300, [email protected]
Kathy Covey/The Fund for Animals: 301-258-3126, [email protected] 
Zibby Wilder/Animal Protection Institute: 916-267-7266, [email protected] 

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