Whenever the circus is in town, you can reliably find two kinds of people following the elephants around: pooper-scoopers and animal rights activists.
When The Daily Caller caught a recent Ringling Brothers performance in Fairfax, Virginia, a handful of protesters stayed around after the show to yell to anyone who would listen about what they called “cruelty” under the big top.
And TheDC put their claims to the test.
“Every single animal being used by the circus is subjected to the same daily, systematic abuse,” sniped Lisa Qualls, who works with animal rights groups in Washington and Baltimore. “What, are they gonna show you if you go back and look?
It turns out Ringling was eager to show us.
TheDC met with Asian elephants named “Asia” and “Siam” (pronounced “See-um”) behind the Patriot Center at George Mason University. Their trainer, Ryan Henning, brought the giant pachyderms out for a closeup — including two that TheDC hand-fed whole loaves of bread and four more that played busily with bamboo branches.
“Myself and many others spend 24 hours — 24/7 with these guys,” Henning said, “caring for ‘em, exercising, cleaning, feeding, socializing, playing. The whole nine yards.”
Qualls countered than Ringling’s elephants are “subjected to a shortened life of misery.”
But according to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Asian elephants have a life span in the wild of 45 years. Henning said Feld Entertainment — the parent company of the Ringling brothers circus — has at least 10 elephants older than that, including a few that have retired to the company’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Feld spends $6 million per year caring for elephants at that facility.
But animal rights activists continue their crusade to outlaw the use of elephants and other live animals in circuses — and have moved their animal cruelty claims to the courts.
The biggest lawsuit in that genre, which snaked its way through the federal court system for nearly eleven years, was finally resolved on appeal in January — in Ringling’s favor. The critical moment in that case came when a judge in 2009 found that the animal-rights plaintiffs and their attorneys had paid a witness $190,000 for his testimony.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, too, inspects Ringling’s elephants on a regular basis. A source with direct knowledge of the agency’s programs told TheDC that USDA has an eight-member “special team” whose only job is to inspect the roughly 80 traveling elephants living in the United States.
Other government agencies, too, take a special interest in elephants’ welfare. During one 11-week stay in California last summer, a total of 18 state, local and federal government agencies sent 44 different inspectors to look at Ringling’s pachyderms. The 82 visits spanned more than 221 hours, or more than 3 hours for every day the circus was in the Golden State.
But judges and government inspectors aside, Qualls insisted, “animals have the same inherent right to freedom that the human animal has.”
Instead of freedom, Henning talked of endangered species and what he called “the largest sustainable herd of captive Asian elephants in the entire Western hemisphere.” Ringling’s elephants, he said, are not just keeping the species alive: They’re happy and healthy.
How does he know they’re happy?
“Just look at ‘em,” he told TheDC. “You can see for yourself, standing right here behind us, flapping their ears, socializing, playing — they’re very curious, social animals, so they show us.”
This story was updated after publication to clarify the role of USDA’s special 8-person elephant inspection team, specifically the number of animals whose welfare constitutes its sole purpose.
Videography by David Martosko