Big Top Battle: Sparring Over Elephants

The lawsuit originally claimed that all 54 of Ringling Bros.' elephants -- the largest herd in North America -- suffered abuse at the hands of circus employees. But when Ringling Bros. questioned how the plaintiffs could know about the treatment of elephants they had not seen, a judge reduced the number of animals covered in the suit to the six that Rider, the barn man, had actually cared for, the ones that he calls "my girls."

He said he worked with those elephants from 1997 to 1999 and witnessed "systematic daily abuse" from trainers wielding bull hooks and other tools. The animals were chained "most of the day" before shows, he says, and "up to three days on the train" that carried them from coast to coast.

"I saw elephants bleeding," Rider told ABC News. "We'd have to put wonder dust on them, and it is kind of a charcoal powder that coagulates the blood, and we'd use that to cover it up so they could go into the show."

When the sight of the alleged abuse became too much, says Rider, he quit the circus in protest.

"They've got the greatest show on Earth," he explained. "That's what it is, a show, because the public doesn't know what's really going on."

Ringling Brothers officials have stressed that Rider is not trained in the care and handling of elephants and argue he is not qualified to judge how the circus treats the animals.

In court, Sullivan also appeared skeptical about Rider's credibility, expressing concern about inconsistencies in the testimony he shared with the court.

In an "Elephant Care Fact Sheet," the company says it spends $6 million annually on animal care and more than $60,000 a year for each of its 54 elephants. In 1995, the circus created a "state-of-the-art" facility in Florida, "dedicated to the reproduction research and retirement of Asian elephants," according to the fact sheet.

Ringling Bros. lawyers built an argument that the case should be dismissed because the Endangered Species Act does not apply to captive elephants. But Sullivan, the judge, rejected the argument, moving the trial forward. He will decide the case without a jury.

Rider and the animal rights groups hope a victory in the case will mean that the circus must stop chaining elephants and injuring them with bull hooks and other tools.

But from the point of view of Ringling Bros., a defeat would mean much more: an end to elephants at the circus. "The only place the American public would see elephants in the future," said Pardo, "is in books or videos."

Sullivan will likely issue his verdict in the case this summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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