Dirty secrets under the big top

Lawsuits charge Ringling Bros. with abusing animals, endangering public health, and sabotaging its critics using CIA spooks. Could this be the end of the circus as we know it?
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Why is this elephant smiling?

steve@sfbg.com

The circus has come to town. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest and most profitable show of its kind in history, is in Oakland this week, and will be headed to San Jose next week. Spectators will see trapeze acts, clowns — and animals, particularly elephants, performing the trademark stunts that are considered the highlight of the event.

But the show may soon be over.

Ringling Bros. has been battling with animal welfare advocates for a generation or more, and a landmark federal lawsuit headed to trial in October could finally answer the question of whether rough, regular treatment of endangered Asian elephants by circus handlers constitutes illegal animal abuse.

At stake is the future of performing animals in circuses, particularly this 138-year-old global institution. Circus officials say that if the court prohibits the use of tools like leg chains and the ankus (an elephant training tool that activists call a bull hook and handlers call a guide), they'll stop touring with elephants — a feature that they admit is their biggest draw.

The case, originally filed eight years ago by three national animal welfare groups and former Ringling Bros. elephant handler Tom Rider, has unearthed a treasure trove of damning inside documents from both Ringling Bros. and the US Department of Agriculture, the agency that regulates circuses and ensures their compliance with the Endangered Species and Animal Welfare acts.

Among the allegations are claims of repeated injuries to elephants by ankus-wielding handlers, efforts to conceal animal abuse from the public and government regulators, the preventable deaths of three baby elephants, prevalence of tuberculosis (the same strain contracted by humans) in elephants and handlers, and a pattern of high USDA officials overriding the enforcement recommendations of agency investigators and ignoring evidence of abuse.

"Ringling Bros. engages in these unlawful activities by routinely beating elephants to 'train' them, 'discipline' them, and keep them under control; chaining them for long periods of time; hitting them with sharp bull hooks; 'breaking' baby elephants with force to make them submissive; and forcibly removing nursing baby elephants from their mothers before they are weaned, with the use of ropes and chains," reads the federal lawsuit filed by American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and Rider. It will be heard in US District Court in Washington, DC, starting Oct. 7.

Despite its major implications, the case has drawn surprisingly little media attention. But it's a remarkable story, full of juicy documents, an abundance of YouTube video footage that appears to show Ringling Bros. animal abuse — along with Ringling Bros.' role in derailing the career of a prominent Bay Area television news anchor and the intriguing involvement of shadowy CIA operatives.

Critics say Ringling Bros.' extensive advertising makes media outlets pull punches, but another reason the circus has avoided bad press may lie with other Ringling lawsuits that contain some astounding revelations of how the circus — or more specifically, circus owner Kenneth Feld and his Feld Entertainment, the world's largest live entertainment company — treats those who seek to expose its secrets.

DIRTY CIRCUS TRICKS

Power and illusion have always been mainstays of the circus, ever since P.T.