Animal welfare groups are expected to protest this week's arrival of the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Las Vegas. The group has long accused the circus of animal cruelty and court records show the circus has played rough in response. Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp has the latest.More>>
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The circus is back in Las Vegas. The Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus arrived Tuesday night for their annual visit, but this year is different. The circus is awaiting a decision by a federal judge about whether it can continue to use endangered elephants in its act.
Animal welfare groups have alleged for many years that what Ringling Brothers does is inherently cruel to elephants. Now, they're waiting to see if a federal judge agrees with them. They hope this is the end of the line for more than a century of animal cruelty. The Ringling folks are just as confident that the show will go on.
"We're trying our best to make sure these endangered species are around for future generations," said Ringling animal handler Ryan Henning.
As the Ringling rail cars were unloaded Tuesday evening, 12 hours before their scheduled arrival, Henning expressed the same sentiments his employer has emphasized in recent years -- mainly, how well circus elephants are treated and how much the big pachyderms enjoy living out of boxcars.
"They enjoy it. They travel very comfortably. I would say they travel better than the people in the show. They've got it made," he said.
"I don't know how you can have a traveling elephant, 11 months out of the year stationed on a train, have their feet being chained, and have their feet be okay. It's impossible," said animal activist Linda Faso.
Faso has helped organize protests against every circus to hit Las Vegas for the last two decades and has another one scheduled for Thursday night outside the Orleans Arena, where the Ringling performances will be held.
Faso has long argued it is inherently cruel to endangered Asian elephants to force them into the life of a traveling carny, and the proof is in their feet.
Some of the most pointed testimony to emerge in a six week federal trial focused on the feet of Ringling elephants. Nearly all of the animals have foot problems to one degree or another, not only because they spend most of their lives in chains, either in rail cars or on asphalt parking lots like the Orleans, but also because elephants simply aren't built to perform the kind of tricks they are taught for the circus.
Former Ringling elephant handler Tom Rider was one of the star witnesses in the federal trial. He told the court there is only one way to get large, intelligent creatures to don funny outfits and perform amusing tricks, and that's thru the use of pain and fear, as manifested in the use of the infamous bullhook. Ringling has compared the bullhook to a leash for dogs, but video captured around the country shows otherwise.
Circus owner Kenneth Feld of Las Vegas even admitted as much during the trial. ""What came out of the trial was a lot of evidence, like when Kenneth Feld said ‘I've seen all my handlers strike the elephants.' They hadn't admitted that in years," said Rider.
The federal trial ended in March. The judge could decide that Ringling can no longer put elephants on the road and in the show. Even if the circus prevails in the case, the groups that sued believe they've already made an impact.
At the Las Vegas unloading, the traditional bullhooks were nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by smaller, less menacing devices. It's not enough, animal groups say. "I would assume that in various cities there are a lot more people watching now, so they are being more careful, and it's just behind the scenes. I'm sure the elephants are being chained still, in boxcars which the general public doesn't get to see," said Nicole Paquett, attorney for Born Free USA.
Paquett says the federal judge has scheduled more oral arguments to be held in July, so a decision won't happen until after those sessions. But can Ringling carry on without its elephants? The animal welfare folks say yes and they point to the success of Cirque De Soleil as an example.