PETA, Ringling Bros. at odds over the treatment of baby circus elephants
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Sammy Haddock started working with elephants when he joined the circus at 20, in 1976, a young man's dream. He walked them, groomed them, cleaned up after them. More than once, he later confessed, he beat them.
Over time, his feelings about elephants grew more tender, especially toward the babies. In 1997 he was hired to work as a handler at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Center for Elephant Conservation, an ambitious program in Florida to breed and preserve endangered Asian elephants. Part of Haddock's job was to help train elephant calves to be circus performers.
He was deeply affected when 8-month-old Riccardo collapsed with leg injuries after tumbling off a tub during pre-training in 2004. Riccardo had to be euthanized. Haddock also began to see things from the point of view of his wife, Millie, an animal lover.
Nearly two years ago, Millie lay dying of complications from diabetes. Sammy had retired from the circus in 2005 to care for her. She asked him for a promise.
"My wife never liked what the elephants went through at the circus, especially the baby elephants, or that I was a part of it," Haddock said recently in a written declaration. "Before she died, she told me, 'Sammy, I know you'll do the right thing.' "
Now Haddock's dramatic interpretation of doing "the right thing" is being unleashed -- from the grave. He died early last month in Clermont, Fla., at 53, of liver failure. He left behind scores of pictures and a written recollection of his workplace. They offer a compelling glimpse into the treatment of baby circus elephants. It veers from the image propagated by the industry -- of little creatures contentedly acquiring nimble new moves in return for carrots and grapes.
Dead men do tell tales.
But what about pictures? Do pictures speak for themselves?
The point of bullhooks
Last spring, Samuel Dewitt Haddock Jr. brought his story and his snapshots to Debbie Leahy, director of captive animals rescue and enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA and Ringling are old and bitter adversaries. PETA wants the animal acts shut down. Ringling has accused PETA of distorting its record of animal husbandry.
Haddock was a hard-bitten country boy, 5-foot-10 and lean, a real character. He was an unusual whistle-blower for PETA. He was a meat eater and a dove hunter. He didn't go undercover and secretly snap images on a spy camera. He was just a guy taking pictures at work.
In a 15-page notarized declaration, dated Aug. 28, before he took sick, Haddock describes how, in his experience at Ringling's conservation center, elephant calves were forcibly separated from their mothers. How up to four handlers at a time tugged hard on ropes to make babies lie down, sit up, stand on two legs, salute, do headstands. All the public's favorite tricks.
His photos show young elephants trussed in ropes as bullhooks are pressed to their skin. A bullhook is about the length of a riding crop. The business end is made of steel and has two tips, one hooked and one coming to a blunt nub.