They are the five-ton stuff of childhood delight: Asian elephants that prance and turn and hoist their way beneath the fabled big top. Yet, it is what animal rights activists say happens behind the scenes, far from the squealing cheers of fans, that may chase pachyderms from the circus forever.
Legs chained so tightly the elephants cannot take a step. Hides "bull-hooked" with prongs so sharp the animals sometimes bleed. Young elephants wrenched from their nursing mothers with ropes and chains. All this alleged abuse, say the activists, violates the Endangered Species Act, and to stop it, they have sued Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in a federal case that goes to trial Wednesday in Washington, DC.
"I have seen (the elephants) crying in pain and just screaming out," says Tom Rider, who used to work in the elephant barn at Ringling Brothers and joined the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups in filing the suit.
Circus officials, meanwhile, contend that leg chains and bull hooks -- which they call "tethers" and "guides" — are standard tools in the industry and far from inhumane when used properly by trained Ringling Brothers employees.
"Our elephants are healthy and well cared for and, in fact, are thriving at the circus," says Michelle Pardo, a lawyer for Ringling Brothers.
Pardo also disputes the legal basis for the case. The animal rights groups make the novel argument that the circus has violated the Endangered Species Act by "harassing," "harming" and "wounding" the endangered Asian elephants. But Pardo says the act doesn't apply to captive animals, which are, instead, protected by the Animal Welfare Act.
"This is really nothing more," she says, "than a philosophical debate about whether elephants belong in the circus at all."
But it is also a legal dispute that has lasted eight years -- and involves behemoths that are as much a part of America's entertainment lore as clowns and cowboys. Asian elephants weigh on average 250 pounds at birth and can grow to 12,000 pounds if male, 10,000 pounds if female. They are voracious, consuming up to 200 pounds of hay a day, 50 gallons of water and countless crates of apples, carrots and bananas. And they are smart, with an uncanny knack for mimicry and responding to verbal commands.
The lawsuit originally claimed that all 54 of Ringling Brothers' elephants -- the largest herd in North America -- suffered abuse at the hands of circus employees. But when Ringling Brothers 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 says 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 stress 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 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.
When the trial starts Wednesday, Ringling Brothers lawyers say they will again argue to the judge that the case should be dismissed because the Endangered Species Act does not apply to captive elephants. If the judge rejects the argument, the trial will go forward in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. It is expected to last two weeks, and will be tried before a judge rather than 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 Brothers, 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."