WASHINGTON (AP) - Animal rights activists asked a federal judge
Wednesday to find that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus violates the Endangered Species Act by using metal-tipped prods and chains to control its elephants.
In closing arguments after a six-year court battle, the animal activists asked U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan to stop the circus from harming the elephants during performances and punishing them for bad behavior.
Attorney Katherine Meyer, arguing for the animal rights groups, said she hoped the case would "give voice to these magnificent animals."
Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, argues the animals are not hurt by the tools and that the instruments are necessary to keep the pachyderms under control and protect public safety.
Feld's attorneys say their 54 elephants are healthy, alert and well-cared for, including the 19 that travel with the show and 35 that live at the company's 200-acre conservatory in Florida.
Some of the elephants at the center of the case were coincidentally just a few blocks from the courthouse, preparing for weekend performances at Washington's MCI Center.
Sullivan noted that the day's Washington Post featured a large photo of the elephants parading to the event site, surrounded by trainers carrying prods that looked fairly "benign." Meyer responded that testimony had shown that trainers use smaller black prods before the public.
The case centers on the Endangered Species Act, which prevents
among other things, the harming, wounding or harassing of the Asian
elephant or other protected animals. Feld's attorneys argue that
Congress never intended the law to ban elephants from circuses and
that the activists just want to create controversy to raise money.
"These guides and tethers are appropriate," said Michelle Pardo, a lawyer for the circus. "They are humanely used and the elephants are doing well."
Meyer showed the court videos of trainers striking the elephants in the legs, trunk and ears with the metal-tipped prod, called a "bullhook" by the activists and a "guide" by the circus. She held up a prod in court, swinging it over her head as she recalled testimony about elephants who had been hit suffering puncture wounds that could sometimes develop into infected boils.
She also told how elephants are chained for hours in trains or on concrete at the conservation center, leading to arthritis, cracks in their nail beds that can cause abscesses and bed sores like patients in nursing homes.
Under questioning from the judge, Meyer acknowledged that not all use of chains and prods would violate the law. She said she hopes that he will require the circus to get permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for proper use of the tools. But she could not say specifically what treatment should be allowed or just how long elephants could legally be kept on chains.
Sullivan expressed some reluctance to police circus techniques and asked how the prods and chains are different from spurs used on
horses and whips with tigers.
"Where does all this start and stop?" Sullivan asked. "I mean, I don't think federal judges should be regulating all the acts of the circus."
Ringling Bros. argues it cannot have elephants without these instruments because there is no other proven way to keep the animals under control and protect their trainers and the viewing public.
Sullivan also questioned the credibility of a former Ringling elephant handler, Tom Rider, who is a plaintiff in the case. Rider says it hurt him to see the elephants he loved abused, and the lawsuit would not be valid without a person who can claim an injury.
Sullivan expressed concern about inconsistencies in Rider's testimony, including the fact that Rider used a prod himself after leaving Ringling and joining a European circus. The judge also questioned why Rider had not paid taxes on funds he received from the animal rights activists over the years.
Meyer responded that Rider is an unsophisticated man with a high school-equivalency degree, yet a good individual who is living out of his Volkswagen van and has devoted his life to spreading the word about elephant abuse.
Both sides agreed to submit their final briefs next month. Then the judge said he would hold a final hearing in late May or early June, meaning his ruling wouldn't come until the summer. "It's never too late to settle a case," Sullivan reminded them, but both sides said an agreement in the fierce debate would be unlikely.