March 18, 2009 -- They are the five-ton stuff of childhood delight: Asian elephants that prance and turn and hoist their way beneath the fabled big top. But animal rights activists say that what happens behind the scenes, far from the squealing cheers of fans, may chase pachyderms from the circus forever.
At the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., today, attorneys made their closing arguments, with the activists' counsel claiming that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in violation of the Endangered Species Act because its elephant handlers abuse the animals with prods and chains.
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.
"I have seen [the elephants] crying in pain and just screaming out," 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, told ABC News earlier this year.
Katherine Meyer, who represents the animal advocacy groups, used a "bullhook" in court to emphasize her argument and recall testimony from witnesses who said the elephants had suffered wounds and sometimes infections as a result of the instrument's use.
Responding to a question from U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, she said her clients hope that the judge will mandate more regulation of the circus, such as a requirement that it obtain permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to use the tools.
Circus officials, meanwhile, have contended 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 Bros. employees.
"Our elephants are healthy and well cared for and, in fact, are thriving at the circus," said Michelle Pardo, a lawyer for Ringling Bros.
Coincidentally, some of the circus' elephants were less than a mile away during the arguments, getting ready for weekend performances at the Verizon Center in northwest Washington.
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."
In court today, Pardo reiterated the circus' stance, telling the judge that the "guides and tethers are appropriate," and that they're "humanely used and the elephants are doing well."
The legal dispute 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 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.