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An American institution -- the Ringling Brother's circus is facing an uncertain future now that a lawsuit is moving forward in Federal Court. It took animal welfare groups eight years to get Ringling into court. The trial begins in October.
On a day hot enough to blister meat, in an asphalt parking lot behind a Las Vegas casino, two out-of-place Asian elephants splash around in a shallow pool. It's enough to thaw the heart of the most strident animal activist.
There's no getting around it, people love elephants -- on a level that seems almost primal. Ringling Brothers knows this better than anyone.
"You care about it when you stand next to a 10 foot tall animal. Your eyes light up, no matter how old you are. That's the experience we've been bringing to the country for 138 years," said Ringling Brothers spokesperson Andy Perez.
According to Perez, the elephants are essential to the circus, "Our polling shows 80-percent of attendees come because of the elephants. As much as the clowns and acrobats are part of it, so are the elephants."
By one estimate, the Ringling Circus earns $100 million a year for its owner Kenneth Feld, an impresario with long-standing ties to Las Vegas. Without elephants, the circus would fold its tent, its supporters say.
Attendance and profits remain strong, but it gets a little tougher each year. Animal activists are waiting at almost every stop to protest the treatment of non-human performers -- especially the elephants.
Andy Perez has worked for Ringling for ten years. He is the designated media liaison and responder to critics, "Animal activists have their view. It's the polar opposite of Ringling Brothers."
He lauds the circus for creating an elephant farm in Florida and a breeding program designed to help save the species. He says, with a straight face, that the stunts performed by circus elephants are perfectly natural.
"Elephants are playful. What you see in the circus is basically what elephants do in the wild. They stand on their head, on logs, on each other," he said.
"They stand in a line of 14 elephants?" asked Knapp.
"Absolutely. Have you ever seen a herd move?" said Perez.
"Seriously?" asked Knapp.
"Yeah, they move around. Elephants are social creatures. They move in herds," said Perez.
"In the wild, they would stand on hind legs, 14 in a row?" asked Knapp.
"They stand on each other for mating -- for playing. It's natural behavior to reach for higher things off tree branches," said Perez.
If we take Ringling's word for it that elephants in the wild perform, a larger question remains -- are elephants cut out to be carnies?
A Ringling tour lasts two years and covers 80 cities. Elephants essentially live in railroad cars and in chains -- a part of their existence the public and media don't get to see.
It's the circus life that is at the heart of a lawsuit filed eight years ago by animal welfare organizations, which allege that an endangered species, especially one as intelligent as elephants, shouldn't spend most of its life in a boxcar.
Ringling says its pachyderms are pampered.
"It's a great life for elephants. They get 24 hour, seven-day-a-week care, people with them all the time, tending to their needs, their health. They get exercised -- they are in movement constantly. Look at the elephants. We invite the public to our open house, how healthy they look, their muscle tone. They're happy. They're in good condition," said Perez. "They respond to the trainers. They have great rapport with the trainers and enjoy themselves."
The animal groups say there's a reason why elephants obey their trainers -- fear. Elephant trainers in every circus, including Ringling, use the infamous ankus or bullhook. Ringling says it's a harmless but necessary tool.
"The guide is an internationally accepted management tool. It's necessary," said Perez.
"Necessary if you are going to have them in a circus," asked Knapp.
"If you are going to work with elephants period. If you are a 150 pound man, you need a way to communicate with that animal -- just like a leash with a dog. Can it be misused? Absolutely. But at Ringling Brothers, we don't tolerate it and have never been in violation," said Perez.
Undercover videos recorded by animal welfare groups paint a different picture, although Ringling has been very successful in resolving complaints filed with the USDA.
Some of the most pointed criticism comes from Ringling's own elephant experts and vets. Internal memos obtained by the critics are packed with first hand accounts of elephants that have been beaten and bloodied, scarred, abused, infected and denied water to prevent urination during performances. The allegations are from Ringling's own veterinarians.
"Your animal person said it happened lots of times -- bleeding in the ring. Others say it happens," said Knapp.
"In my ten years with the circus, I haven't seen that. I can speak from experience. I can't speak to what this person, he or she, what this person has written," said Perez.
One central issue in the federal court case is the intent of Ringling's breeding program. The circus says it's doing the world a favor by saving the species and that no elephant is forced to perform.
"Someone needs to protect and study. We're leaders in that. We started our center to learn more about them. We do work around the world," said Perez.
"Do you raise them for anything other than performing?" asked Knapp.
"Not every elephant is a performer, just like not every person is a performer. When a calf is born, a determination is made of what the calf is interested in. Some are shy, some are hams," said Perez.
But critics say the elephants either perform or die. Former Ringling elephant handler Tom Rider, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says every single elephant born at the Ringling farm is performing in the circus, except for the four baby elephants that died while training or performing.
"There is not one baby elephant born at that conservation center that has ever been put into the wild. All they're doing is having babies. It's like a puppy mill for elephants, breeding babies to put them in the circus," he said.
"Ringling snatches them from their mother by dragging them with ropes and starts dominating them. At six-months-old, an elephant has no concept of why they're being hurt. They don't understand what they're doing. But the show must go on," said animal welfare activist Linda Faso.
"We're caring for an endangered species. Put our money where our mouth is, keeping them from going extinct. The activists are not," said Perez.