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PETA, Ringling Bros. at odds over the treatment of baby circus elephants

Ringling Brothers breeds and trains baby elephants at a special center in Florida. PETA says these pictures show the training is inhumane. A Ringling trainer says they are "classic pictures of professional elephant training."

Jacobson has worked with elephants nearly all his adult life. He trained nine of the 22 elephants that tour with Ringling, and he helped rear all 22 calves born in captivity to Ringling elephants. "They're a lot like people," he says. "They're fascinating to watch and deal with."

Ringling proudly cites the conservation center as exemplifying the highest standard of elephant husbandry and research. In the barns, paddocks and pastures, nearly 30 elephants are in residence. The fact that Ringling has accomplished 22 births in captivity -- including second-generation births of babies to parents that were themselves born in captivity -- is a sign that "the biological and social needs of the individual animals are being appropriately addressed," said Mike Keele, acting director of the Oregon Zoo, who is active in efforts to preserve Asian elephants.

A significant phase in a calf's life is the separation from its mother. In his declaration Haddock described a brutal procedure:

"When pulling 18-24-month-old babies, the mother is chained against the wall by all four legs. Usually there's 6 or 7 staff that go in to pull the baby rodeo style. . . . Some mothers scream more than others while watching their babies being roped. . . . The relationship with their mother ends."

One of his pictures shows four recently weaned elephants tethered in a barn, no mothers in sight.

Jacobson picks up the image. "That was before the turn of the century," he says, referring to the late 1990s. He says he practiced "cold-break weaning," or abrupt separation from the mother, only when a set of mothers back then wouldn't let their calves be trained in their presence.

"I separate them slowly now," he says, and only when the calves demonstrate natural independence, from 18 to 22 months, but as late as when they are 3 years old.

"When you separate the calves, they thrash around a bit," Jacobson says. "They miss their mother for about three days, and that's it."

In the wild, calves don't venture from their mothers' side until the age of 5 or 6, said Phyllis Lee of the University of Stirling in Scotland, a specialist in baby animal behavior who studies elephants. She likened the accelerated separation in the circus to a kind of "orphaning": "It's extremely stressing for the baby elephant. . . . It's traumatic for the mother."

Ropes are a big part of training. Haddock said in his declaration: "The babies fight to resist having the snatch rope put on them, until they eventually give up. . . . As many as four adult men will pull on one rope to force the elephant into a certain position."

Jacobson scrutinizes the photos of ropes and chain tethers. He points out the precautions that he says he takes. Thick, white doughnut-shaped sleeves are on one baby's feet. That's hospital fleece, he says, to make the restraints as soft as possible.

"If you didn't use the rope, you'd have to use the stick," Jacobson says. "This way we use the carrot and the rope."

Weighing up to a ton, a young elephant is strong. That's why so many handlers are working on each at the same time, Jacobson says. It's a credit to Feld's resources that so many people can focus on one elephant pupil, he says.

"On the third day [of training a new trick], there are no ropes on them anymore," he adds. "It goes very, very quickly."

In another photo, Jacobson is holding a black object about the size of a cellphone close to an elephant lying on the ground. Haddock said the device is an electric prod known as a "hot-shot."

"It's possible I could be holding one there," Jacobson says. "They're not used as a specific training tool. There are occasions when they would be used."

(McWethy said a hot-shot would be used only if necessary to prevent harm to animals or handlers.)

In several photos, Jacobson touches elephants' feet with a bullhook to get them to lift their legs. He touches the back of an elephant's neck to get it to stretch out. From the photos, it's impossible to tell how much pressure he is applying.

"You cue the elephant," he says. "You're not trying to frighten this animal -- you're trying to train this animal."

He adds: "You say 'foot,' you touch it with a hook, a guy pulls on a rope and somebody on the other side immediately sticks a treat in their mouth. It takes about 20 minutes to train an elephant to pick up all four feet."

Bottom line, says Jacobson: It's not in Ringling's interest to mistreat the elephants. "These things are worth a tremendous amount of money. They're irreplaceable."

Bonds or bondage?

Jacobson leaves Haddock's pictures on the table and goes out to a paddock where 13-month-old Sundara is nuzzling her mother, Sally. The trainer offers mother and calf handfuls of white bread and banana leaves as an afternoon snack. Sundara trots eagerly to Jacobson, waving her trunk, then retreats to the shelter of her mother's bulk, then pops out again, sassy and adorable.

What are the elephants thinking, feeling? Is it something akin to fear? Affection? Resignation? Indifference? Contentment? Who knows. Some say elephants have sophisticated emotional lives that are twisted by being forced to entertain humans. Others say they thrive in well-designed training programs to perform maneuvers they might naturally do anyway.

Jacobson remembers one of the last times he saw Haddock. It was eight months ago. The retired handler came bearing a gift that only another old elephant pro could truly treasure.

"He brought me a real nice guide," Jacobson says appreciatively. "One of the nicest ones I ever had."

A few months after delivering that present, Haddock said in his declaration: "Toward the end of my career . . . I stopped telling people what I did for a living. I was ashamed."

Staff researchers Eddy Palanzo and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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