The Amboseli Trust for Elephants last year released a letter signed by 14 leading elephant researchers, with almost 300 years of combined experience working with elephants in the wild, arguing for an end to the practice.
"It is our considered opinion that elephants should not be used in circuses. Elephants in the wild roam over large areas and move considerable distances each day. They are intelligent, highly social animals with a complex system of communication.... Elephants in circuses are bought and sold, separated from companions, confined, chained, and forced to stand for hours and frequently moved about in small compartments on trains or trucks. They are required to perform behaviors never seen in nature," they wrote.
Aria said she didn't agree with those conclusions, saying she looks out her office window every day: "I see elephants and get to see them all day doing the most amazingly athletic things." And she said only those with a propensity to perform are taken on the road, which is about one-third of their 53 elephants. "You can separate the ones who want to do it from the ones who don't want to do it," said Aria, who joined Ringling Bros. as a clown in 1972. Later, she earned a bachelor's degree in special education and worked as a teacher during the '90s. She was named to her current post in 2006.
"All the elephants here are happy and thriving," Aria said, noting there are only about 35,000 Asian elephants still alive and that many, in places like Sri Lanka where she has visited, are regularly abused and killed. "Good for the Feld family that they support elephants from their births to their deaths."
PRESERVATION OR EXPLOITATION?
The path to the courthouse has been long and difficult, with Feld getting a similar earlier case dismissed and this one moving to trial only after threats and stern warnings by Judge Sullivan against any more stall tactics by the defendants.
"It's been very difficult to get to this point," Meyer, the ASPCA lawyer, said, adding that that just being able to have their day in court is already a huge victory. "To have this issue aired in a public forum will be helpful for educating the public."
Silverman said she was most shocked by documents obtained by the plaintiffs and introduced as part of the case showing elephants chained up to 100 hours at a time, for an average of 26 hours when traveling between shows. "In no way did I imagine the bulk of the evidence that would support our claims," Silverman said. "These animals live their lives in chains."
In addition, many members of the public might not be aware that Ringling Bros. obtains its elephants under the Endangered Species Act for the purpose of protecting and propagating an endangered species, and the ESA contains strict rules against physical abuse of those animals.
"There's no humane way to have a circus with elephants because it has to travel year-round," Rider told the Guardian. "If you take away the chains and the bull hooks, an elephant isn't going to do anything."
Rider, who worked with Ringling elephants for more than two years, "saw several of the other elephant handlers and 'trainers' routinely beat the elephants, including baby elephants, and he saw then routinely hit and wound the elephants with sharp bull hooks," according to the lawsuit.
Ringling officials such a trainer Aria contend the elephants are well-cared for. Yet she also admits that the elephants are the key to the Felds' lucrative business empire.
"They are our flagship animal," Aria said.