Is the Ringling Brothers Circus Abusing Its Animals in Miami?
For decades, the nation's largest animal rights organizations have been fighting ferociously to stop circuses from utilizing wild animals in their performances. From PETA to the ASPCA to ARFF, these groups argue that such practices are abusive, unnatural and antiquated.
But for the profiteers, the show must go on, and the biggest target of these group's efforts, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, opened in Miami this week. At last night's debut, protesters planned to greet big top guests with leaflets, graphic images and pleas to take their dollars elsewhere. But what are the facts behind the accusations against "The Greatest Show on Earth" and other circuses like them?
Last year, Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, shelled out $270,000 to settle animal care citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the largest amount ever paid by an animal exhibitor. The allegations included claims that they violated federal animal-welfare laws when handling elephants, tigers, zebras and other animals. Despite the payout, Ringling is quick to say that they never admitted to real wrongdoing.
"We are regulated by the USDA, we're a licensed exhibitor, we did not agree with a vast majority of the findings the USDA had," says Steve Payne, a spokesman for Ringling. "So say we disagreed with nine out of 10 findings, and we weren't given the option of disputing those nine - it was almost an all or nothing proposition. So we made a business decision of settling with the regulator. They've inspected us on multiple occasions since and there haven't been any issues."
Nevertheless, undercover videos widely dispersed online show Ringling trainers striking elephants on the head and body with bullhooks, also known as elephant goads. These sharp metal tools are designed to control the massive mammals.
PETA says the circus has a history of abuse, and there are photos, videos, testimonials and pages of documents supporting such claims. "We are concerned about the routine physical and psychological abuse that elephants and other animals suffer at the hands of Ringling. We have video footage from undercover investigations that show these animals are whipped, beaten, yanked by heavy, sharp steel-tipped bullhooks and abused in other ways behind the scenes before they perform," says PETA Campaign Specialist Ashley Byrne.
Despite all the accusations, and even when faced with what some would call visual evidence, Ringling says all treatment of their animals is humane. "In terms of training, it's based on positive reinforcement, it's the most efficient and easiest and most humane way to treat an animal."
Then why the need for bullhooks? Payne says "guides," as they call them, are an accepted tool for animal husbandry per the USDA.