Big Top Battle: Sparring Over Elephants

Lawyers make final pitches in case over Ringling Bros.' treatment of elephants.

ByABC News
March 18, 2009, 4:35 PM

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.