Opening arguments began today in a case that has galvanized animal rights activists across the country, with one of the biggest stars in the circus world charged with abusing a performing Asian elephant.
Mark Oliver Gebel of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, son of the late legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, is accused of gouging the hide of Asia the elephant as she was being led into the ring of San Jose's Compaq Arena last August.
Gebel is being charged with a misdemeanor. He is charged with violating California Penal Code Section 596.5c -- the only state law in the country that specifically prohibits elephant abuse. If convicted, he faces up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
It is the second attempt by the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley to win a case against Ringling, which activists have long accused of using brutal training methods on performing animals.
Ringling and its attorneys say it is an insult to a caring trainer. They say it is a politically motivated prosecution and a ludicrous exaggeration of a nickel-sized scratch on an 8,000-pound animal. For a nationwide audience, it is, if not the greatest show on earth, certainly a compelling one.
The incident in question occurred Aug. 25, as Gebel led a line of elephants into the arena for a grand finale. According to numerous witnesses, including officials from the local Humane Society and a San Jose police sergeant, the animal trainer yelled and lunged at the elephants, urging them on.
When Asia did not move fast enough, they said, Gebel struck her with an ankus, a hooked metal stick that is used by elephant trainers and that is about the size of a fireplace poker. Asia bolted forward and was later found to have a bloody spot behind her left front leg, they said.
In her opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Carolyn Powell described an angry Gebel, visible to witnesses because of his golden costume, jabbing at Asia behind her leg, an area known to be sensitive.
"She bolted in reaction to the sharp jab she received from her trainer," Powell said, showing jurors the bloody wound in a photo taken after the incident.
Defense attorney James McManis countered that witnesses did not have a good view of Gebel and that they were strongly biased in favor of animal rights.
"These observances that were made -- the report that was written -- were prepared by people with a very definite agenda about circuses and animals in circuses," he said.
He said no witness actually saw Gebel make contact with the animal. And he minimized the extent of the alleged wound, noting that even prosecution witnesses described the "spot" as "nickel-sized" in their reports to the police. He said a veterinarian who examined the animal afterward found no sign of injury.
The opening arguments came after an arduous day of jury selection in a city apparently full of animal lovers.
"I just told the judge, 'I'm tenderhearted, I love animals and I don't want to witness any animal abuse.' So they dismissed me. How can you be objective in a case like this?" asked one woman, who requested anonymity, as she left the courthouse.
Gebel, 31, attended today's proceedings neatly dressed in an olive suit and yellow tie and accompanied by his mother. Behind them, taking up two rows of courtroom seats, was an entourage of about 15 Ringling staff members -- chief among them Kenneth Feld, owner of Feld Entertainment of Vienna, Va., Ringling's parent company.
"Feld has known Mark all his life," Catherine Ort-Mabry, a spokeswoman for Ringling, said outside the courtroom. "Mark has been part of the circus since age 2 -- this is very personal" for Feld, she said.
This is the second time such a prosecution has been attempted here. Two years ago, the humane society tried to have charges brought against Ringling Bros., alleging it had found puncture wounds on seven Ringling elephants. Prosecutors declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence.
This time, the district attorney's office felt there was enough evidence for a conviction, according to Rebecca Hayworth, the supervising attorney on the case.
"We have witnesses who observed the actual jabbing at the elephant with the ankus by the defendant," she said.
"For years, Ringling Brothers put out an image that the animals are happy, and that there is no abuse or mishandling involved in getting them to perform," said Deniz Bolbol, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Citizens for Cruelty-Free Circuses. "We will see testimony by former Ringling employees, and we have current video taken this year and last year supporting the fact that the only way to get those animals to perform is by harassing them or inflicting abuse."
Bolbol said she would be happy to challenge Ringling to train the elephants without using the ankus and then see if they will still perform.
Ort-Mabry, the spokeswoman for Ringling, insisted that the ankus is a time-tested and appropriate training tool.
"The ankus has been around for 3,000 years. It is like using reins for a horse, or a leash for a dog," she said, adding that the hook is meant to mimic the shape of the Asian elephant's trunk, and its use is meant to imitate the gesture of a mother pulling a baby elephant closer to her side.
But that is not how Gebel used it on Aug. 25, according to Christine Benninger, executive director of the humane society. "It is clear that the ankus ended up being used in a punishing manner and in a manner that inflicts pain," she said in an interview before jury selection began.
"I think it's a very straightforward case," she said. "We have witnesses, we have blood and we have a wound."
Rodney Huey, vice president of public relations for Ringling Bros., said the humane society should not be allowed to describe itself as the champion for animals.
"I've known Mark [Gebel] his whole life. He is the animal lover," he said. "He lives for these animals. He's known a lot of these animals longer than his wife and kids."