Indeed, the lawsuit identifies more than a dozen such examples.
USDA spokesperson Jessica Milteer told the Guardian she couldn't comment on specific examples, but said supervisors are ultimately responsible for interpreting field reports. "Things are pretty much done on a case-by-case basis. We try to work with a facility to come into compliance."
But she said that it's not true the USDA goes easy on Ringling Bros. because of its power or political connections. She said there are currently two open investigations into Ringling Bros. (she would not provide details) and that facilities like Ringling get annual inspections unless they're found to have problems or risk factors.
"Since 2005 Ringling has been inspected 52 times," Milteer said, indicating the USDA is indeed concerned about some of the things it has observed at Ringling Bros.
USE OR ABUSE?
Aria, the Ringling trainer, said banning the use of the ankus "would not allow elephants to travel anymore." Feld and other top officials have made similar public statements. She bristled when hearing the ankus referred to as a bull hook. "We call them guides," she told the Guardian. "It is used to reinforce a verbal cue."
Aria and McWethy dismissed videos that appear to show handlers inflicting violent blows on elephants, saying they are often selectively edited and spliced in with footage of non-Ringling elephants and handlers. Activists insist this isn't true and that much of the footage clearly shows abuse at Ringling Bros. For example, one video shows a person identified as a Ringling Bros. elephant handler striking violently at an elephant after saying on camera that he never does so. Another shows Ringling elephants being paraded through a town and one slow elephant being sometimes pulled along by an ankus behind the ear, with a closeup then showing a bloody puncture wound in the spot.
"From the videos I have seen, so much of it is repackaged and old stuff that doesn't apply to us at all, not at all," Aria told us.
Graham, who worked for Ringling for the two years she has been a veterinarian and who interned with the circus before that, said she visits the elephants at least once a week and "I have never seen a trainer use an ankus inappropriately." Further, she said, she has never seen an injury she thinks was caused by the ankus: "If I see anything, it's generally superficial abrasions."
Rider and animal welfare activists say the hook on the ankus is used to inflict pain on the sensitive parts of an elephant, mostly behind their ears or on the backs of their legs, as a negative stimulus to encourage the animals to perform tricks or obey commends. If it was simply a "guide," they say, it wouldn't need a hook.
But Aria said the ankus is akin to a leash, a means of keeping the elephants near them. "It's a 'come-to-me' cue," she told us. "This comes from decades and decades of use."
Sorting out whether such traditions are actually a form of animal abuse is the purpose of the fall trial.
"The circus is really good at creating the illusion of the happy performing elephants," Kathy Meyer, an ASPCA attorney who has been handling the case from the beginning eight years ago, told us. But she said that it's clear from the documents, videos, testimony, and common sense that the ankus is often used to inflict pain, which is prohibited under federal animal welfare rules, particularly those governing endangered species, which allow Ringling to have elephants only for conservation reasons.
"So we're asking the judge to enjoin them to stop them from using these practices," she said.
Many veterinarians and wildlife experts agree that it's not possible for elephants performing in circuses to be treated humanely.