By David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The elephant has become synonymous with the circus, so much so that in a D.C. courtroom yesterday, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey attorney asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to consider this question: "Can it really be called a circus without elephants?"
Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, had been taken to court to answer assertions that the joy many feel when they see circus elephants comes at a steep price. Several animal rights groups claim that the company abuses the animals by using what they refer to as chains and bull hooks to control the elephants, leaving permanent scars and bleeding.
"These animals are not in good health," said Tracy Silverman, general counsel at the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit group that is among the plaintiffs in the case.
But John Simpson, representing Feld, countered that elephants under its care had better survival odds than those in the wild, where they face being shot by hunters, sometimes taking months to die from injury.
"There is no abuse here as far as we're concerned," Simpson said.
Animals rights groups have long accused circus companies of mistreating animals. The current case is going to court after eight years of legal battles by the Animal Welfare Institute, along with several other animal welfare groups. They want to prevent Ringling from chaining the animals or using bull hooks to control them as they move from town to town.
The two sides agree on little, not even terminology.
Simpson, for instance, rejected the term bull hook -- a rod with a hook at the end -- calling it a guide. He referred to chains as tethers. Both tools, Simpson said, are necessary to control elephants because they are so large. He showed footage of four of Ringling's elephants -- Jewel, Zutzi, Susan and Mysore -- that have been with the circus since the 1950s. He said all were in good health. Simpson showed another video of two other elephants outside an arena in Detroit, playfully petting each other on the head with their trunks.
"You can hear from the opening statements that the two stories being presented are night and day," Jonathan Lovvorn, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an interview. "We say bring on the witnesses, and let's see what the experts say."
One of the first witnesses was Joyce Poole, who has a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of Cambridge. She testified that elephants are extremely social and have an understanding of death and pain. She said she once saw an elephant knock rocks out of its path to avoid stepping on them because of pain in its feet. The defense tried to discredit her, saying her expertise was more aligned with African elephants than Asian elephants, but the judge allowed her to testify.
It was the first sparring match in a trial expected to last until late this month.