Ringling Brothers Circus Hits Town as Elephant-Abuse Case Heats Up

Green-clad residents celebrating St. Patrick's Day gather along the streets of Washington for a glimpse of The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus ceremonial elephant walk. Video by Anna Uhls/"Baby Elephant Walk" song by Henry Mancini courtesy Sony Bmg/RCA
By David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Elephants with green top hats, clutching Irish flags in their trunks, marched through the District yesterday to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day and announce the arrival of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus for shows starting tomorrow.

The march took place as a legal battle that has raged for years comes to a head today with closing arguments in U.S. District Court. Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, is accused by several animal rights groups of abusing their elephants with so-called bull hooks, instruments used to train the animals for performing. Feld's lawyers deny any abuse and contend that survival odds for circus elephants are better than for those in the wild, where they face being shot by hunters, sometimes taking months to die from wounds.

The court drama seemed far away as dozens of young children squealed in delight as the parade marched by and elephants stood on their hind legs and waved flags with their trunks.

Ringling employees handed out green top hats and clown noses to bystanders, including Angie M. Gates, 38, of the District, as the parade wound its way from Fourth Street SE to the Verizon Center. A self-described animal lover, Gates is also a circus fan.

"I've seen smaller circuses in the South, and the treatment of the animals is definitely questionable," Gates said. "But Ringling has been around forever. At the end of the day, if you have an animal in a confined situation, you are responsible for that animal. The animals are the stars of the show, and they should be treated in the best way possible."

Romain Falloux, 34, of the District said the circus is great for kids, and he looks forward to bringing his son Maxim, 2, to his first circus this week. But he had mixed feelings as he saw the elephants perform tricks for the public.

"I've never been a big circus person," Falloux said. "I'm not big on captivity. Me as a parent, I want my son to be able to enjoy the experience, but as a human being, it's not something I like. I'm sure the treatment the elephants receive from [Ringling Bros.] isn't as good as they would receive in a zoo, since they have to be trained to perform."

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