"But she's never tested positive," McWethy said.
In June 2001, the tuberculosis issue was enough of a concern to the USDA that the agency initiated what one official document called an "investigation regarding allegations that Ringling was using known TB-infected animals in circus performances." But information on the results of that investigation was redacted by the USDA from later documents.
In a 2003 report written by the three plaintiff groups in the latest lawsuit, "Government Sanctioned Abuse: How the United States Department of Agriculture Allows Ringling Bros. Circus to Systematically Mistreat Elephants," they conclude: "Although tuberculosis is an extremely contagious disease, and Ringling's elephants are publicly exhibited throughout the country, including elephants that go in and out of both the breeding and retirement facilities, the public has been kept completely in the dark about this investigation, the agency's decision to 'override' the conclusions of its own inspectors and investigators, and the reasons this investigation was closed with no further action."
WATCHING THE CIRCUS
Feld the man and his company are big contributors to top elected officials of both major parties. Campaign finance records show that since 1999, Feld has given at least $104,900 to Republicans and $35,150 to Democrats on the federal level and in his home state of Maryland.
Benefiting disproportionately from Feld's largesse are members of the House Agriculture Committee (which oversees the USDA). The contributions include almost $10,000 to former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), $6,500 to the campaign and committees of Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (the committee's ranking Republican), and $6,500 to Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.). Representatives from the two states where Ringling Bros. bases its animals off-season, Texas and Florida, also took in $13,300 and $28,000 respectively, more than those from other states. Animal welfare advocates say Feld's wealth, power, and political connections have caused the USDA to go easy on Ringling Bros.
"This cozy relationship between the USDA and Ringling Bros. is going to be exposed during the trial," Tracy Silverman, the attorney for Animal Welfare Institute, told the Guardian.
Plaintiffs will make an example of the death of a four-year-old elephant named Benjamin, who drowned in a Huntsville, Texas, pond July 26, 1999 after refusing to heed trainer Pat Harned's commands to get out. That death came a year after another baby elephant, two-year-old Kenny, died after being used in three circus performances in one day, despite warnings from veterinarians that he was severely ill.
"The United States Department of Agriculture's final 'Report of Investigation' concerning the incident concluded that Benjamin's trainer's use of an 'ankus' on Benjamin 'created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal.' On information and belief, the routine beatings of Benjamin were a contributing factor to his death," the animal welfare groups wrote in the lawsuit.
The USDA investigator recommended Ringling Bros. be charged with vioutf8g the Animal Welfare Act, yet the USDA's General Counsel's Office overrode those conclusions and issued its own: "Suddenly, and without any signs of distress or struggle, Benjamin became unconscious and drowned." Ringling and USDA officials say the animal died of a previously undetected cardiac arrhythmia, and the final report omitted any mention of the ankus or behavioral stress.
Animal welfare activists and lawyers say this is just one of many examples of senior USDA officials overriding recommendations of front-line investigators and veterinarians, then blocking access to reports and other evidence that might support or disprove the final conclusions.