Ringling Bros. elephants at a 2010 D.C. show. (Sarah L. Voisin/WASHINGTON POST)

Ringling Bros. arrived in the District on Tuesday for a series of weekend shows, marking its arrival with a traditional elephant walk, and PETA is putting pressure on Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to look into the living conditions of the elephants while they are kept at Verizon Center.

The concern of animal rights activists about the treatment of circus animals is nothing new, particularly in the District. But this year, PETA is looking for a more proactive effort from Gray and is accusing his administration of giving the circus special treatment in exchange for reduced-price audience passes that are handed to constituents.

The circus operator denied Tuesday that it mishandles animals.

In a March 6 letter to the city’s Department of Health, PETA asked that city inspectors look into whether elephants are being restrained in violation of a city law prohibiting “cruel chaining.” The letter particularly asked that inspections be performed at night.

PETA cited testimony of Ringling animal handlers in recent federal court cases that the circus keeps its elephants “chained by two legs so tightly that they can only take about one step in any direction.” That would seem to violate the city anti-cruelty law, which requires that restrained animals have access to food and water and that they be able to “move around” and “urinate or defecate in a separate area from the area where [they] must eat, drink, or lie down.”

“Because ... DOH is the sole entity authorized to assess the conditions under which Ringling confines elephants at night — the time when Ringling has admitted to chaining them — we seek your commitment to performing routine inspections at night,” reads the letter, from Delcianna Winders, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement.

The Health Department’s director, Mohammad N. Akhter, responded three days later, saying his department “inspects venues during normal government business hours” — that is, 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. — and that it “does not conduct surveillance for other agencies, government or nongovernmental.”

Now PETA is calling on Gray to overrule Akhter and order inspectors to check on the elephants during off hours. It has obtained e-mails through a records request that show Gray constituent-service staffers discussing how to distribute as many as a couple of hundred passes to Ringling Bros. shows last March “to ANCs, neighborhood stakeholders, or residents.”

“[I]t appears that the DOH is granting Ringling special immunity and knowingly allowing cruel and illegal treatment of animals,” says a PETA letter sent Tuesday to Gray. “Any appearance of special treatment will only be underscored if District employees accept free or discounted tickets from Ringling. This cannot be tolerated.”

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, said he would “defer to Dr. Akhter” on the timing of anti-cruelty inspections. He also noted that the staffers charged with distributing the passes are a “completely different thing” from the Health Department.

Stephen Payne, a spokesman for circus operator Feld Entertainment, said PETA’s claims that its elephant are mistreated is “completely absurd” and “insulting.”

“It’s another shameless attempt to get attention for their organization and to disparage our outstanding animal care,” he said.

Payne added that Ringling Bros. is “open to inspections” and regularly submits to inspections in jurisdictions across the country.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), the sponsor of several pieces of animal rights legislation, questioned the rationale for refusing to do off-hours inspections. “Just because it’s night, if the allegation is credible, the time of day would seem not to matter,” she said.