Ringling Bros. Circus Heads to Court

Former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider said he worked for the circus from 1997 to 1999 before his conscience prompted him to quit. The afternoon barn man who fed and took care of the elephants said he didn't like what he saw.

"I saw numerous beatings, hitting with the bullhook and constantly chaining them up all the time," Rider told ABCNews.com.

"After two and half years, I left on my own," Rider said. "I left because of the abuse of the animals."

Next week, eight years after Rider first teamed up with animal rights groups to file a lawsuit against Ringling Bros. Circus, the "Greatest Show on Earth" heads to court to defend itself against allegations of animal mistreatment.

Picture of asian elephant.
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On Oct. 27, the case, to be tried in federal district court for the District of Columbia, will examine whether the circus has violated the Endangered Species Act by chaining its elephants for most of the day and night and forcefully using a bullhook to train them, as animal rights groups allege.

Ringling Bros. and its producer, Feld Entertainment, Inc., vehmently deny the allegations, and say that the circus has worked to help breed and conserve Asian elephants and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to their well-being.

"Animal special interest groups are distorting the facts by making false allegations about the treatment of Ringling Bros. elephants as part of a long-running crusade to eliminate animals from circuses, zoos and wildlife parks," said Michelle Pardo, a lawyer with Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. and the circus' spokeswoman for the trial, in a statement. "Feld Entertainment will show during the trial that its elephants are healthy, alert, and thriving, and it intends to debunk the misinformation that has been spread by those who do not own or know how to care for an elephant."

Filed in 2000, the case against Ringling Bros. was initially dismissed when a district court judge said plaintiffs did not have standing to pursue their claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals later reversed that decision, ruling in February 2003 that the case should proceed.

Now, Rider and animal rights groups, including the Animal Welfare Institute, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Fund for Animals and Animal Protection Institute, plan to present evidence that includes video and photos they contend document the mistreatment of Ringling Bros.' elephants. They said they have also collected eyewitness accounts and internal circus documents that reveal abuse.

"These unlawful actions are done on a routine basis, throughout the country, for the purpose of making the elephants perform in the circus and otherwise commercially exploiting these magnificent animals," the complaint alleges.

Tracy Silverman, general counsel for the Animal Welfare Institute, told ABCNews.com the animal rights groups are arguing that the circus should stop using elephants unless it can ensure they won't be chained to fences or forced with bullhooks.

"We want it to stop and we're hoping that, by the conclusion of this trial, that's what will happen," Silverman said.

Meantime, Ringling Bros. acknowledges that it sometimes tethers its 52 elephants, but maintains it does so in a manner that is consistent with the Animal Welfare Act.

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