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The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be coming to town this week. As with nearly every other stop the circus makes, it will be greeted by animal welfare protesters.
But this year, the animal activists have a new reason to complain about how the circus treats its elephants and other animals. A federal judge says the animal groups can now move forward with a blockbuster lawsuit.
Animal welfare groups filed the suit eight years ago and it took all this time to finally get it to court.
The trial is set for October. It will give the animal groups a chance to finally prove what they have alleged for many years -- that life in a traveling circus is no life at all for animals, especially endangered Asian Elephants.
"If there was a humane way to have an elephant in a circus, I would still be there. But I just realized there was no humane way to do it," said former circus employee Tom Rider.
But there is considerable evidence to the contrary, including undercover videos recorded of circus trainers using the infamous ankus, or bullhook, a combination club and metal hook which can inflict considerable pain and injury.
In PR statements, the circus has another word for bullhooks. They call them guides, and say they're comparable to a leash on a dog.
Rider says they are hardly benign, "We have video of them using bullhooks over the last 15 years. They've killed four baby elephants. We have documents of that. We have documents of the USDA covering up the death of Benjamin. He was killed with a bullhook."
It's taken eight long years just to get the case to court.
The plaintiffs allege the circus stalled at every step. It took a court order to obtain internal veterinary records and emails. Those records are damning.
Ringling's own vets talk of elephants with multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks -- wounds that were covered up with makeup known as wonder dust.
One baby elephant named Kenny was bleeding and sick but was forced to perform anyway. He died.
Tom Rider wrote to owner Ken Feld to warn him that trainers with bullhooks hurt the elephants so badly the animals were bleeding during performances.
Many have been exposed to tuberculosis, which hits elephants much as it does people. A circus vet complained in 2004 that the elephants weren't getting enough water, that the water they did get was polluted with soap and bleach, and that water was withheld on purpose.
"They don't want them to urinate during a performance," said Rider.
The essence of the lawsuit isn't about bullhooks or water, though. It's based on the fundamental belief that life on the road is simply the wrong way to treat an intelligent endangered species.
"Elephants are forced to endure a lifetime of misery for 12 minutes under the big top. That's appalling. It's criminal and it's shameful. The general public has no idea how these animals live. These are wild animals that have to perform on cue every day, day after day. They don't do it because they enjoy it. They do it because they are afraid and are forced to. And if they don't move fast enough for a performance, they get beat the minute they get behind the curtain away from the audience," said animal activist Linda Faso.
Faso says that even if Ringling Brothers treated the elephants with loving care, it is inherently cruel to make them live the life of a traveling circus performer.
"They travel up to 48 to 50 weeks a year in a railroad car -- chained from show to show. That's their home. They don't have a place to live. Ringling's own paper say that sometimes they are chained up to 60 hours on a train, back and front leg. They can't even turn around and move. These are animals that move 25 miles a day, bathe and groom themselves, and they're chained in place. It's criminal," she said.
Tuesday, a look at how the circus has fought back against animal groups, including how it hired the former Director of Covert Operations for the CIA to go after its critics.