WASHINGTON (AFP) — The legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus goes on trial Monday in Washington for allegedly abusing the elephants that perform in the group's shows.
On October 27 the federal district court in Washington will hear the animal abuse case against Ringling Bros. and its parent company Feld Entertainment, eight years after a former employee teamed up with animal advocates to launch the lawsuit.
The case will focus on whether the company, billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth," violated the Endangered Species Act by training its Asian elephants with sharp bull hooks and chaining the animals for days on end.
The plaintiffs -- including former employee Tom Rider, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Welfare Institute -- will present evidence against Ringling that includes eyewitness testimony, video footage and testimony from elephant behavior experts accumulated over the years.
The complaint states that Ringling engages in unlawful activities by "routinely beating the elephants to 'train' them, 'discipline' them and keep them under control, chaining them for long periods of time."
Lisa Weisberg, a legal consultant for ASPCA, said the circus routinely uses sharp implements such as bull hooks to coerce the elephants.
"They hook them in very specific places of the body where they are very sensitive, behind their ear, under their chin .... Used at a very young age, the sight of the bull hook is used as an instrument of intimidation," she said.
Rider, a Ringling employee from 1997 to 1999, said the only time the elephants are let off their chain "is when they are performing."
The elephants, which in the wild routinely walk long distances each day, were reported to be chained up in some instances for 26 hours at a time.
The trial is the culmination of eight years of legal wrangling to bring the case to a federal court.
Michelle Pardo of Fulbright & Jaworski, the law firm representing Feld Entertainment in the case, said that animal rights advocates were "distorting the facts by making false allegations about the treatment of Ringling Bros. elephants."
Feld Entertainment would demonstrate "during the trial that its elephants are healthy, alert and thriving," she said.
In a pre-trial ruling last year, the court heard charges against Ringling Bros. for the treatment of six elephants, as opposed to the 53 that the circus has in its possession.
The charges were "without merit," the company said in a statement after the 2007 trial.
"We look forward to finally having the opportunity to establish at trial that Ringling Bros. inhumanely and unlawfully mistreats the endangered Asian elephants it uses to perform in shows all across the country," said plaintiff lawyer Katherine Meyer ahead of the trial on Monday.
The circus, which travels by train across the United States, was created by seven brothers in the 19th century, and grew largely through the success of its elephant shows.
There were approximately 200,000 Asian elephants in the world in 1900. Today there are around 35,000.
At its Florida preservation center, where the circus breeds the elephants, Ringling Bros. have the largest population of Asian elephants in captivity in the Western Hemisphere.
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