Ringling veterinarian Danny Graham told the Guardian that two non-traveling elephants are currently being treated for TB, but couldn't say how many have tested positive in the past.
Yet Ringling officials maintain that active tuberculosis is not a problem in the circus, that their diagnosis and treatment regimens are adequate to protect the health of the elephants, circus employees, and the public, and that no elephants that tested positive for TB have then performed in front of the public.
Graham said the trunk wash, which detects when a TB infection has shed out of the lungs and can be transmitted, is an effective indicator of whether an animal is contagious. "Shedding is when it can be passed to other elephants," she told us. "What our trunk washes look for is a shedding of the bacteria."
Yet Ringling records show at least one case in which the necropsy on a dead elephant, Dolly, showed TB in the lungs even though the trunk wash results were negative.
A Ringling FAQ sheet on "Tuberculosis in Elephants," by Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of veterinary services for Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation, admits that humans and elephants get the same kind of TB. "However there has been no proven case of tuberculosis bacterium being transmitted from elephants to humans," he writes.
He uses a similarly legalistic, underlined approach on questions of whether humans can contract TB from elephants and whether there have been studies indicating so, saying neither has been "proven." And he flatly denies that any elephants have MDR TB.
Two Ringling officials interviewed by the Guardian Graham and Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship training went further than Schmitt and flatly denied that any elephants that tested positive for TB ever performed.
"None of the elephants in our traveling unit have ever tested positive for TB," Aria told the Guardian. "No, none of our traveling elephants have ever tested positive for TB," Graham said in a separate interview.
THE USDA INVESTIGATES
But Ringling veterinary records unearthed in the latest lawsuit cast some doubt on the claims of circus officials. Three of the seven elephants that traveled with Ringling Bros. Blue Unit to Oakland Juliet, Bonnie, and Kelly Ann appeared in one redacted veterinary document, marked as exhibit "FELD 0021843."
Kelly Ann's entry includes this notation: "Moved from CEC to Blue Unit. Just finished TB treatment." Juliet was listed as "currently being treated for presumptive TB" and Bonnie had "blood drawn for Tb Elisa," an expensive TB test that often follows a positive reading in the trunk wash test. Documents connected to a 1999 USDA inspection also list Kelly Ann and "Juliette" among 10 elephants administered drugs for treating TB.
Asked whether Kelly Ann has ever undergone TB treatment and informed of the document, Aria told the Guardian, "From my knowledge, that is not true."
McWethy, the Feld corporate communications manager who arranged and monitored our interviews with Aria and Graham, initially said she was not familiar with the document, and even if she was, "the court requested that the parties not discuss the specifics of the suit." In actuality, the judge has not issued a gag order in the case, and plaintiffs spoke freely about details of the case.
Later, after she reviewed the document at our request, McWethy confirmed that Kelly Ann had been exposed to TB in 1999 and that the circus decided to treat her for the disease.