Dirty Secrets Under the Big Top

Danny Hellman

San Francisco Bay Guardian | August 15, 2008
The circus has come to town. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest and most profitable show of its kind in history, is in Oakland this week, and will be headed to San Jose next week. Spectators will see trapeze acts, clowns -- and animals, particularly elephants, performing the trademark stunts that are considered the highlight of the event.

But the show may soon be over.

Ringling Bros. has been battling with animal welfare advocates for a generation or more, and a landmark federal lawsuit headed to trial in October could finally answer the question of whether rough, regular treatment of endangered Asian elephants by circus handlers constitutes illegal animal abuse.

At stake is the future of performing animals in circuses, particularly this 138-year-old global institution. Circus officials say that if the court prohibits the use of tools like leg chains and the ankus (an elephant training tool that activists call a bull hook and handlers call a guide), they'll stop touring with elephants -- a feature that they admit is their biggest draw.

The case, originally filed eight years ago by three national animal welfare groups and former Ringling Bros. elephant handler Tom Rider, has unearthed a treasure trove of damning inside documents from both Ringling Bros. and the US Department of Agriculture, the agency that regulates circuses and ensures their compliance with the Endangered Species and Animal Welfare acts.

Among the allegations are claims of repeated injuries to elephants by ankus-wielding handlers, efforts to conceal animal abuse from the public and government regulators, the preventable deaths of three baby elephants, prevalence of tuberculosis (the same strain contracted by humans) in elephants and handlers, and a pattern of high USDA officials overriding the enforcement recommendations of agency investigators and ignoring evidence of abuse.

"Ringling Bros. engages in these unlawful activities by routinely beating elephants to 'train' them, 'discipline' them, and keep them under control; chaining them for long periods of time; hitting them with sharp bull hooks; 'breaking' baby elephants with force to make them submissive; and forcibly removing nursing baby elephants from their mothers before they are weaned, with the use of ropes and chains," reads the federal lawsuit filed by American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and Rider. It will be heard in US District Court in Washington, DC, starting Oct. 7.

Despite its major implications, the case has drawn surprisingly little media attention. But it's a remarkable story, full of juicy documents, an abundance of YouTube video footage that appears to show Ringling Bros. animal abuse -- along with Ringling Bros.' role in derailing the career of a prominent Bay Area television news anchor and the intriguing involvement of shadowy CIA operatives.

Critics say Ringling Bros.' extensive advertising makes media outlets pull punches, but another reason the circus has avoided bad press may lie with other Ringling lawsuits that contain some astounding revelations of how the circus -- or more specifically, circus owner Kenneth Feld and his Feld Entertainment, the world's largest live entertainment company -- treats those who seek to expose its secrets.


Power and illusion have always been mainstays of the circus, ever since P.T. Barnum reportedly said, "There's a sucker born every minute." Elephants and other exotic animals have always been important features of the show as well, going back to the 1860s when James Anthony Bailey displayed Little Columbia, the first elephant ever born in a circus.

The nation's three largest circuses -- Barnum's, Bailey's, and the Ringling Brothers' -- gradually merged into one by 1919 and enjoyed growing popularity until entering into a period of decline during the Great Depression. That decline continued through the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, when more than 100 people died inside a Ringling Bros. tent, and into the 1950s, when television became popular.

But music promoter Irvin Feld began to turn the circus around in the late '50s, bringing in new acts and increasing the circus's profitability. In 1967 he bought the company and later passed control of the circus to his only son, Kenneth, who has prospered along with the show.

Kenneth Feld made Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans in 2004, with a reported net worth of $775 million. Feld Entertainment made the Forbes list of the nation's top companies in 2000, ranking 404th with a reported annual revenue of $675 million and profits of $100 million.

Feld also owns and operates such shows as Disney on Ice, Disney Live, High School: The Musical, and the Siegfried and Roy tiger-taming act.

But all is not well in the Feld empire.

When Feld had a falling out with his top lieutenant, Charles Smith, in 1998, Smith filed a wrongful termination lawsuit that exposed the nefarious inner dealings of "The Greatest Show on Earth," including alleged animal abuse, public health threats, and the use of a top former CIA official to spy on, infiltrate, and sabotage animal welfare activists and journalists.

Among other things, the case brought to light charges that some of the elephants have been exposed to or have contracted tuberculosis.

Joel Kaplan, a former private investigator who worked for Feld, alleged in a deposition in the Smith case that TB was a serious problem among the pachyderms. "I think it's immoral to have elephants traveling in every arena in the country with tuberculosis," noted Kaplan, who filed his own lawsuit and settled for $250,000. He stated that he had been told by a Ringling Bros. veterinarian that "about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings."

Also included in the case was a deposition by Clair George, the No. 3 person in the CIA until 1987, when he was convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran-contra scandal (he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992). George admitted to working for Feld and conveyed chilling tales of sabotage, including the case of freelance journalist Jan Pottker, who wrote a 1990 magazine profile of the Feld family which included allegations that Irvin Feld maintained a longstanding homosexual relationship outside his marriage.

To deter her from writing a book about the Feld family, George outlined a scheme to have one agent befriend her and another seduce her, spy on her progress, feed her conflicting information, and even get her a book deal on another project to divert her, with a $25,000 advance allegedly paid by Feld.

"I undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld," George wrote in a sworn affidavit. "I was paid for this work by Feld Entertainment or its affiliates. I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr. Feld in personal meetings."

Amy McWethy, a spokesperson for Feld Entertainment, refused to discuss the cases or their implications.

The statements of George and Kaplan describe secret bugging and phone tapping, bribes and clandestine cash settlements to silence critics (including Smith, who settled his lawsuit for $6 million), and infiltration of groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"As part of my work for Feld Entertainment," George wrote in his affidavit, "I was also asked to review reports from [Feld executive vice president] Richard Froemming and his organizations based on their surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of various animal rights groups."

National security reporter Jeff Stein (now with Congressional Quarterly) wrote the definitive account of Feld's alleged black ops for Salon.com ("The Greatest Vendetta on Earth," 8/30/01), and was also allegedly targeted for surveillance and retribution, according to a story in the May/June 2002 issue of Columbia Journalism Review ("Investigations: The scary circus," by Jay Cheshes).

Stein's original stories were followed up by 60 Minutes in May 2003, which essentially repeated the allegations.

The next year, KTVU anchor Leslie Griffith got onto the circus story, doing lengthy, investigative reports on the animal abuse lawsuit revelations for KTVU in 2004 and 2005, just as Ringling Bros. was coming to town.

Then Griffith left the station -- at least in part because of the backlash she says she felt from both her corporate bosses and Ringling Bros., whose internal documents reveal an aggressive strategy to counter negative media coverage.

A training manual made public as part of the lawsuit outlines how the circus responds to reporters:

"Immediately upon learning about negative stories about Ringling Bros., the Animal Issues Department will put in place the [Rapid Deployment Force]," it states. "The Animal Issues Department will directly contact the editor/news director.... Armed with videos, literature and other information, the Animal Issues Department Head will demand a retraction or equal time and will work in concert with the grass roots campaign.... If the editor/news director refuses the request, Legal will be informed to determine what recourses exist."

Griffith says it was after KTVU was targeted by this effort that she was barred from doing any more circus stories and her relationship with the station began to deteriorate. "All of a sudden my hair wasn't good enough, my makeup wasn't good enough -- after 25 years of doing the news."

Officially Griffith and KTVU parted on good terms with mutual statements of respect. Even today, KTVU general manager Tim McKay (who was station manager when Griffith left) speaks highly of Griffith, telling the Guardian, "Leslie worked here for a number of years and did a fantastic job."

McKay said he didn't know about any contact from Ringling Bros. or Griffith being told to back off the circus stories (he said he would check and get back to us, but didn't as of press time), saying only, "We stand behind the stories as they aired. There was a whole lot of attention given to their accuracy."

But it's clear that Ringling Bros. was aware of and upset by Griffith's work. In 2005 Ringling Bros. attorneys argued in court against efforts by the ASPCA and the other lawsuit plaintiffs to obtain financial records and veterinary records on the Ringling elephants, telling the judge: "To shovel this stuff into the public record and try to draw inferences from it, or put it in out of context, lends itself to all sorts of abuse, the very kind of abuse that we contend took place on the San Francisco television station last week."

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered Ringling to turn over the documents, but kept many (mostly the financial documents) under protective seal, keeping their contents hidden from the public.

Griffith, who won dozens of major journalism awards over her 25-year career, says the public suffers when journalists are muzzled. "If they took anything from me," she said, "it was my bully pulpit."


If Griffith still had that bully pulpit and the ability to freely use it, she told us she'd be talking about mycobacterium tuberculosis in elephants. After doing extensive research into the issue -- interviewing top experts and traveling across the country to review voluminous court files -- Griffith has come to believe Ringling Bros. Circus poses a serious threat to public health.

"You can talk about the [animal] abuse, but with a worldwide epidemic brewing, I'd say the story is the tuberculosis," Griffith told us. She has been writing periodically on elephants and TB on her blog (lesliegriffithproductions.com), the Huffington Post, and prominent news sites such as Truthout, which published her piece, "The Elephant in the Room," a year ago.

"There are several alarming issues for epidemiologists: drug resistance, inability to diagnose if an elephant has been cured, and disease spreading to handlers who work with them and to the public who attend circus performances," Griffith wrote in the article, relying on public documents and experts on both the circus and infectious disease.

Griffith's star source has been San Francisco-based epidemiologist Don Francis, who helped discover the HIV virus and became the first director for the Center for Disease Control's AIDS Laboratory. The Guardian talked to Francis, who has reviewed Ringling documents and concluded that the elephants do indeed pose a threat to public health. He told us he's particularly troubled by records that appear to show elephants being treated with multiple drugs, meaning they could have multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB), "which really scares me." Ringling denies that any elephants have MDR TB, for which there is essentially no cure.

But Francis remains concerned. "A trumpeting elephant could definitely aerosolize this stuff," Francis told the Guardian -- and that would keep small particles of the virus airborne long enough for them to be inhaled by handlers or circus crowds. Children and those with weak immune systems, such as people with HIV, would be especially susceptible to contracting TB from these particles.

Although Francis said he couldn't say whether any circus attendees have been infected with TB from elephants -- and we've been shown no evidence that anyone's ever contracted TB from attending a circus -- he sees no basis for Ringling's claims that the elephants are safe. "I don't know that anyone has asked the question. I'm not sure anyone has ever tied it together," Francis said.

Both Griffith and Rider maintain that all of Ringling's elephants have been exposed to TB at one time or another and that the standard annual process used to test for infection -- trunk washing -- is inadequate to determine if they are carrying and transmitting the virus.

"Every elephant traveling with Ringling has been exposed to TB, and many of them have TB," Rider, a former Ringling elephant handler, told us.

In fact, Kaplan testified in court that he was asked "to find a physician who would test the people in the circus to see if they had tuberculosis but who would destroy the records and not turn them in to the Centers for Disease Control," as the law requires.

Ringling and USDA documents unearthed by the lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests show that at least eight elephants tested positive for TB and that many others have been exposed to them. Ringling veterinarian Danny Graham told the Guardian that two non-traveling elephants are currently being treated for TB, but couldn't say how many have tested positive in the past.

Yet Ringling officials maintain that active tuberculosis is not a problem in the circus, that their diagnosis and treatment regimens are adequate to protect the health of the elephants, circus employees, and the public, and that no elephants that tested positive for TB have then performed in front of the public.

Graham said the trunk wash, which detects when a TB infection has shed out of the lungs and can be transmitted, is an effective indicator of whether an animal is contagious. "Shedding is when it can be passed to other elephants," she told us. "What our trunk washes look for is a shedding of the bacteria."

Yet Ringling records show at least one case in which the necropsy on a dead elephant, Dolly, showed TB in the lungs even though the trunk wash results were negative.

A Ringling FAQ sheet on "Tuberculosis in Elephants," by Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of veterinary services for Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation, admits that humans and elephants get the same kind of TB. "However there has been no proven case of tuberculosis bacterium being transmitted from elephants to humans," he writes.

He uses a similarly legalistic, underlined approach on questions of whether humans can contract TB from elephants and whether there have been studies indicating so, saying neither has been "proven." And he flatly denies that any elephants have MDR TB.

Two Ringling officials interviewed by the Guardian -- Graham and Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship training -- went further than Schmitt and flatly denied that any elephants that tested positive for TB ever performed.

"None of the elephants in our traveling unit have ever tested positive for TB," Aria told the Guardian. "No, none of our traveling elephants have ever tested positive for TB," Graham said in a separate interview.


But Ringling veterinary records unearthed in the latest lawsuit cast some doubt on the claims of circus officials. Three of the seven elephants that traveled with Ringling Bros. Blue Unit to Oakland -- Juliet, Bonnie, and Kelly Ann -- appeared in one redacted veterinary document, marked as exhibit "FELD 0021843."

Kelly Ann's entry includes this notation: "Moved from CEC to Blue Unit. Just finished TB treatment." Juliet was listed as "currently being treated for presumptive TB" and Bonnie had "blood drawn for Tb Elisa," an expensive TB test that often follows a positive reading in the trunk wash test. Documents connected to a 1999 USDA inspection also list Kelly Ann and "Juliette" among 10 elephants administered drugs for treating TB.

Asked whether Kelly Ann has ever undergone TB treatment and informed of the document, Aria told the Guardian, "From my knowledge, that is not true."

McWethy, the Feld corporate communications manager who arranged and monitored our interviews with Aria and Graham, initially said she was not familiar with the document, and even if she was, "the court requested that the parties not discuss the specifics of the suit." In actuality, the judge has not issued a gag order in the case, and plaintiffs spoke freely about details of the case.

Later, after she reviewed the document at our request, McWethy confirmed that Kelly Ann had been exposed to TB in 1999 and that the circus decided to treat her for the disease. "But she's never tested positive," McWethy said.

In June 2001, the tuberculosis issue was enough of a concern to the USDA that the agency initiated what one official document called an "investigation regarding allegations that Ringling was using known TB-infected animals in circus performances." But information on the results of that investigation was redacted by the USDA from later documents.

In a 2003 report written by the three plaintiff groups in the latest lawsuit, "Government Sanctioned Abuse: How the United States Department of Agriculture Allows Ringling Bros. Circus to Systematically Mistreat Elephants," they conclude: "Although tuberculosis is an extremely contagious disease, and Ringling's elephants are publicly exhibited throughout the country, including elephants that go in and out of both the breeding and retirement facilities, the public has been kept completely in the dark about this investigation, the agency's decision to 'override' the conclusions of its own inspectors and investigators, and the reasons this investigation was closed with no further action."


Feld -- the man and his company -- are big contributors to top elected officials of both major parties. Campaign finance records show that since 1999, Feld has given at least $104,900 to Republicans and $35,150 to Democrats on the federal level and in his home state of Maryland.

Benefiting disproportionately from Feld's largesse are members of the House Agriculture Committee (which oversees the USDA). The contributions include almost $10,000 to former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), $6,500 to the campaign and committees of Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (the committee's ranking Republican), and $6,500 to Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.). Representatives from the two states where Ringling Bros. bases its animals off-season, Texas and Florida, also took in $13,300 and $28,000 respectively, more than those from other states. Animal welfare advocates say Feld's wealth, power, and political connections have caused the USDA to go easy on Ringling Bros.

"This cozy relationship between the USDA and Ringling Bros. is going to be exposed during the trial," Tracy Silverman, the attorney for Animal Welfare Institute, told the Guardian.

Plaintiffs will make an example of the death of a four-year-old elephant named Benjamin, who drowned in a Huntsville, Texas, pond July 26, 1999 after refusing to heed trainer Pat Harned's commands to get out. That death came a year after another baby elephant, two-year-old Kenny, died after being used in three circus performances in one day, despite warnings from veterinarians that he was severely ill.

"The United States Department of Agriculture's final 'Report of Investigation' concerning the incident concluded that Benjamin's trainer's use of an 'ankus' on Benjamin 'created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal.' On information and belief, the routine beatings of Benjamin were a contributing factor to his death," the animal welfare groups wrote in the lawsuit.

The USDA investigator recommended Ringling Bros. be charged with violating the Animal Welfare Act, yet the USDA's General Counsel's Office overrode those conclusions and issued its own: "Suddenly, and without any signs of distress or struggle, Benjamin became unconscious and drowned." Ringling and USDA officials say the animal died of a previously undetected cardiac arrhythmia, and the final report omitted any mention of the ankus or behavioral stress.

Animal welfare activists and lawyers say this is just one of many examples of senior USDA officials overriding recommendations of front-line investigators and veterinarians, then blocking access to reports and other evidence that might support or disprove the final conclusions. Indeed, the lawsuit identifies more than a dozen such examples.

USDA spokesperson Jessica Milteer told the Guardian she couldn't comment on specific examples, but said supervisors are ultimately responsible for interpreting field reports. "Things are pretty much done on a case-by-case basis. We try to work with a facility to come into compliance."

But she said that it's not true the USDA goes easy on Ringling Bros. because of its power or political connections. She said there are currently two open investigations into Ringling Bros. (she would not provide details) and that facilities like Ringling get annual inspections unless they're found to have problems or risk factors.

"Since 2005 Ringling has been inspected 52 times," Milteer said, indicating the USDA is indeed concerned about some of the things it has observed at Ringling Bros.


Aria, the Ringling trainer, said banning the use of the ankus "would not allow elephants to travel anymore." Feld and other top officials have made similar public statements. She bristled when hearing the ankus referred to as a bull hook. "We call them guides," she told the Guardian. "It is used to reinforce a verbal cue."

Aria and McWethy dismissed videos that appear to show handlers inflicting violent blows on elephants, saying they are often selectively edited and spliced in with footage of non-Ringling elephants and handlers. Activists insist this isn't true and that much of the footage clearly shows abuse at Ringling Bros. For example, one video shows a person identified as a Ringling Bros. elephant handler striking violently at an elephant after saying on camera that he never does so. Another shows Ringling elephants being paraded through a town and one slow elephant being sometimes pulled along by an ankus behind the ear, with a closeup then showing a bloody puncture wound in the spot.

"From the videos I have seen, so much of it is repackaged and old stuff that doesn't apply to us at all, not at all," Aria told us.

Graham, who worked for Ringling for the two years she has been a veterinarian and who interned with the circus before that, said she visits the elephants at least once a week and "I have never seen a trainer use an ankus inappropriately." Further, she said, she has never seen an injury she thinks was caused by the ankus: "If I see anything, it's generally superficial abrasions."

Rider and animal welfare activists say the hook on the ankus is used to inflict pain on the sensitive parts of an elephant, mostly behind their ears or on the backs of their legs, as a negative stimulus to encourage the animals to perform tricks or obey commends. If it was simply a "guide," they say, it wouldn't need a hook.

But Aria said the ankus is akin to a leash, a means of keeping the elephants near them. "It's a 'come-to-me' cue," she told us. "This comes from decades and decades of use."

Sorting out whether such traditions are actually a form of animal abuse is the purpose of the fall trial.

"The circus is really good at creating the illusion of the happy performing elephants," Kathy Meyer, an ASPCA attorney who has been handling the case from the beginning eight years ago, told us. But she said that it's clear from the documents, videos, testimony, and common sense that the ankus is often used to inflict pain, which is prohibited under federal animal welfare rules, particularly those governing endangered species, which allow Ringling to have elephants only for conservation reasons.

"So we're asking the judge to enjoin them to stop them from using these practices," she said.

Many veterinarians and wildlife experts agree that it's not possible for elephants performing in circuses to be treated humanely. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants last year released a letter signed by 14 leading elephant researchers, with almost 300 years of combined experience working with elephants in the wild, arguing for an end to the practice.

"It is our considered opinion that elephants should not be used in circuses. Elephants in the wild roam over large areas and move considerable distances each day. They are intelligent, highly social animals with a complex system of communication.... Elephants in circuses are bought and sold, separated from companions, confined, chained, and forced to stand for hours and frequently moved about in small compartments on trains or trucks. They are required to perform behaviors never seen in nature," they wrote.

Aria said she didn't agree with those conclusions, saying she looks out her office window every day: "I see elephants and get to see them all day doing the most amazingly athletic things." And she said only those with a propensity to perform are taken on the road, which is about one-third of their 53 elephants. "You can separate the ones who want to do it from the ones who don't want to do it," said Aria, who joined Ringling Bros. as a clown in 1972. Later, she earned a bachelor's degree in special education and worked as a teacher during the '90s. She was named to her current post in 2006.

"All the elephants here are happy and thriving," Aria said, noting there are only about 35,000 Asian elephants still alive and that many, in places like Sri Lanka where she has visited, are regularly abused and killed. "Good for the Feld family that they support elephants from their births to their deaths."


The path to the courthouse has been long and difficult, with Feld getting a similar earlier case dismissed and this one moving to trial only after threats and stern warnings by Judge Sullivan against any more stall tactics by the defendants.

"It's been very difficult to get to this point," Meyer, the ASPCA lawyer, said, adding that that just being able to have their day in court is already a huge victory. "To have this issue aired in a public forum will be helpful for educating the public."

Silverman said she was most shocked by documents obtained by the plaintiffs -- and introduced as part of the case -- showing elephants chained up to 100 hours at a time, for an average of 26 hours when traveling between shows. "In no way did I imagine the bulk of the evidence that would support our claims," Silverman said. "These animals live their lives in chains."

In addition, many members of the public might not be aware that Ringling Bros. obtains its elephants under the Endangered Species Act for the purpose of protecting and propagating an endangered species, and the ESA contains strict rules against physical abuse of those animals.

"There's no humane way to have a circus with elephants because it has to travel year-round," Rider told the Guardian. "If you take away the chains and the bull hooks, an elephant isn't going to do anything."

Rider, who worked with Ringling elephants for more than two years, "saw several of the other elephant handlers and 'trainers' routinely beat the elephants, including baby elephants, and he saw then routinely hit and wound the elephants with sharp bull hooks," according to the lawsuit.

Ringling officials such a trainer Aria contend the elephants are well-cared for. Yet she also admits that the elephants are the key to the Felds' lucrative business empire.

"They are our flagship animal," Aria said. "People come to the circus to see the elephants."

As such, a ruling that goes against Ringling could financially cripple the company, which is why animal welfare advocates say Feld has taken such an aggressive stance with his critics, harassing, threatening, and sabotaging them. As Silverman said, "You see that with Leslie Griffith, and it's that kind of thing that they do all over the country."

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