Dirty secrets under the big top - Page 4

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?
Why is this elephant smiling?

Sullivan ordered Ringling to turn over the documents, but kept many (mostly the financial documents) under protective seal, keeping their contents hidden from the public.

Griffith, who won dozens of major journalism awards over her 25-year career, says the public suffers when journalists are muzzled. "If they took anything from me," she said, "it was my bully pulpit."


If Griffith still had that bully pulpit and the ability to freely use it, she told us she'd be talking about mycobacterium tuberculosis in elephants. After doing extensive research into the issue — interviewing top experts and traveling across the country to review voluminous court files — Griffith has come to believe Ringling Bros. Circus poses a serious threat to public health.

"You can talk about the [animal] abuse, but with a worldwide epidemic brewing, I'd say the story is the tuberculosis," Griffith told us. She has been writing periodically on elephants and TB on her blog (lesliegriffithproductions.com), the Huffington Post, and prominent news sites such as Truthout, which published her piece, "The Elephant in the Room," a year ago.

"There are several alarming issues for epidemiologists: drug resistance, inability to diagnose if an elephant has been cured, and disease spreading to handlers who work with them and to the public who attend circus performances," Griffith wrote in the article, relying on public documents and experts on both the circus and infectious disease.

Griffith's star source has been San Francisco–based epidemiologist Don Francis, who helped discover the HIV virus and became the first director for the Center for Disease Control's AIDS Laboratory. The Guardian talked to Francis, who has reviewed Ringling documents and concluded that the elephants do indeed pose a threat to public health. He told us he's particularly troubled by records that appear to show elephants being treated with multiple drugs, meaning they could have multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB), "which really scares me." Ringling denies that any elephants have MDR TB, for which there is essentially no cure.

But Francis remains concerned. "A trumpeting elephant could definitely aerosolize this stuff," Francis told the Guardian — and that would keep small particles of the virus airborne long enough for them to be inhaled by handlers or circus crowds. Children and those with weak immune systems, such as people with HIV, would be especially susceptible to contracting TB from these particles.

Although Francis said he couldn't say whether any circus attendees have been infected with TB from elephants — and we've been shown no evidence that anyone's ever contracted TB from attending a circus — he sees no basis for Ringling's claims that the elephants are safe. "I don't know that anyone has asked the question. I'm not sure anyone has ever tied it together," Francis said.

Both Griffith and Rider maintain that all of Ringling's elephants have been exposed to TB at one time or another and that the standard annual process used to test for infection — trunk washing — is inadequate to determine if they are carrying and transmitting the virus.

"Every elephant traveling with Ringling has been exposed to TB, and many of them have TB," Rider, a former Ringling elephant handler, told us.

In fact, Kaplan testified in court that he was asked "to find a physician who would test the people in the circus to see if they had tuberculosis but who would destroy the records and not turn them in to the Centers for Disease Control," as the law requires.

Ringling and USDA documents unearthed by the lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests show that at least eight elephants tested positive for TB and that many others have been exposed to them.