City pushing protection for circus elephants

The circus may not be coming to town--at least not if circus industry representatives can't reach an agreement with a Chicago City Council committee on the handling of its elephants by May.

That's the deadline Ald. Mary Ann Smith (D-48), chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee, set today for representatives of the city, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus to reach an agreement on humane methods of controlling elephants.

The alderman ordered the meeting instead of calling for a vote on an ordinance she sponsored that banned the use of bull hooks, chains and any device that could possibly cause pain or injury to an elephant.

The ordinance will be reconsidered in May.

Smith says she wants to see Chicago in the forefront of new methods of treating animals.

"These are archaic techniques and it's been long overdue to revise people's understanding of the best way to work with these elephants," says Smith.

Debbie Leahy, a spokesperson on captive animal issues for PETA, testified that the use of bull hooks and the practice of chaining up elephants for long periods of time, lead to high rates of elephant death in captivity.

"The issue is that these methods cause elephants trauma and behavioral stress and promote aggression," says Leahy. "In the case of chaining, it can lead to life-threatening health problems, such as foot disorders and arthritis."

Leahy also alluded to a video watched by many aldermen prior to the hearing. The footage, taken backstage at a circus (not Ringling Brothers) documents elephants screaming in pain as they are beaten bloody by trainers with bull hooks.

Leahy says that methods of control that work through dominance are counterproductive. She says that methods employed by the San Diego Wildlife Park, which focus on positive reinforcement, should be adopted by circuses.

Archele Hundley, who worked on an animal crew for Ringling Brothers for two months before quitting in disgust, testified that she'd seen both bull hooks and chaining used to abuse elephants.

She says she saw an elephant being beaten for 35  to 40 minutes by a trainer who eventually swung the bull hook like a baseball bat into the elephant's ear.

She also says she saw animals tethered for long periods of time.

"I saw them in box cars in chains from Worcester, Massachusetts all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were in chains, standing in box cars in their own feces and urine."

However, officials with Ringling Brothers say an investigation of these charges by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency responsible for inspecting elephant care, had found no evidence to sustain them.

Ellen Wiedner, director of veterinary services with Ringling Brothers, says she has never seen an elephant abused during her five years with the circus.

She says that tools like bull hooks, when used properly, are indispensable to giving elephants the medical attention they require.

"By the use of a tool gently touching an elephant I can sit under an elephant and do a reproductive exam," she says, noting that the average female Asian elephant that she works on can range from 8,000 to 15,000 pounds.

She also says the practice of tethering the animals for designated periods of time--during sleep, feeding, or travel, can produce animals that are more comfortable with being restrained for veterinary examinations.

"These are social, well-adjusted animals, and they are very well-cared for," says Wiedner.

Tom Albert, vice president of government relations and animal policy for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers, says the circus could not come to Chicago if forced to leave its elephants at home.

"We can't go anywhere without our elephants," says Albert. "Our marketing studies have repeatedly shown that animals are the number one attraction in the circus."


JANET LOCKE, 04-09-2008

Yes, they could come and bring their elephants; they would just have to leave their tools of abuse home.

BEN BROEREN, 04-09-2008