Ringling vs. Reality
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus paints a
picture of happy animals performing tricks because they like doing them.
Consider the following, then decide whether that’s true. Here are some
of Ringling’s frequent claims juxtaposed with the facts about the
circus’s treatment of animals:
Our training methods are based on continual interaction with
our animals, touch and words of praise, and food rewards.
Video footage taken between 2001 and 2006 of Ringling trainers
and handlers shows that elephants were aggressively hooked, lame
elephants were forced to perform and travel, and a trainer inflicted a
bloody bullhook wound behind an elephant’s ear flap. Former Ringling
employees that left the circus in 2006 and 2007 describe violent
beatings as well as the routine abuse of elephants, horses, camels, and
The ankus (bullhook) is used as an extension of the
handler’s arm to guide the elephants.
bullhook, by design, is intended to cause pain and puncture the
skin. Despite its appearance, an elephant’s skin is as sensitive as
humans’ skin. The sharp metal hook on the end of the bullhook bruises,
punctures, and tears elephants’ skin easily and often. Former Ringling
animal crew employees report that the circus keeps a bag of topsoil
handy to cover up bloody bullhook wounds on elephants.
Ringling is a leading expert in the care of Asian elephants.
Our staff is dedicated to meeting our animals’ physical and behavioral
Ringling’s U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection
reports are riddled with serious citations of problems that directly
impact animal welfare. In 2006 alone, the circus was cited three times
for failure to provide adequate veterinary care to a disabled elephant,
to an elephant with a large swelling on her rear leg, and to a camel
with bloody wounds. Also in 2006, Ringling was cited for causing trauma,
behavioral stress, physical harm, and discomfort to two young elephants
who sustained cuts and abrasions when they ran amok in an arena in
Puerto Rico; improper handling of dangerous animals; and an enclosure in
Ringling has never been adjudged to have violated the Animal
Ringling attempts to confuse the issue with legal terminology.
The USDA refers to a citation on an inspection report as a
“noncompliance” rather than a “violation.” Each citation by the USDA is
an indication that federal inspectors found that Ringling Bros. is
failing to comply with the minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare
In addition to being cited on inspection reports, Ringling
has also been warned by the USDA for causing trauma and stress to two
baby elephants who suffered painful rope lesions when they were
prematurely pulled from their mothers and for improper euthanasia after a
caged tiger was shot to death. Ringling also paid a $20,000 penalty to
settle USDA charges of failing to provide veterinary care to a sick baby
elephant who died shortly after he was forced to perform.
All circuses are subject to stringent animal welfare
regulations at the local, state, and federal level.
No agency monitors training sessions, in which animals may be
beaten behind the scenes. Most state and local agencies defer to the
already overburdened USDA for matters concerning exotic animals in
circuses. The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has no regulations that
specifically pertain to elephants. For example, space requirements for
animals ranging from elephants to zebras simply state, “Enclosures shall
... provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal
postural and social adjustments.” Ringling consistently opposes proposed
laws that would ban cruel training methods, such as bullhooks and the
chaining of elephants. Although inspections by the USDA are supposed to
be unannounced, several former Ringling employees claim that the circus
always knows in advance when inspectors are coming.
Our staff are experts in their fields.
Staff caring for animals in circuses may have little
experience or formal training, increasing the potential for improper
handling. Ringling regularly hires inexperienced people, some directly
out of homeless shelters, and allows them to work with animals.
Ringling is attempting to save endangered Asian elephants from
Ringling breeds elephants solely to perform in its circus. None
of Ringling’s elephants can ever be released to the wild. Of the
approximately 62 elephants owned by Ringling in 1990, 57 were captured
in the wild. And at least 24 elephants have died since 1992. Ringling
has not been successful in breeding more elephants than it has captured
and imported for use in its traveling show, and its elephants are dying at a faster rate
than they are breeding. Ringling routinely pulls unweaned elephants
from their mothers to train them and put them on the road.
The animal routines in our circus showcase our animals’ natural
In nature, elephants don’t stand on their heads, walk
trunk-to-tail, skip, crawl, or twirl, and adult female elephants do not
mount one another. Tigers don’t hop on their hind legs and roll over in
unison. In order to force wild animals to perform difficult and
confusing circus tricks, trainers use whips, sticks, and bullhooks.
The public display of exotic and endangered animals
contributes to a heightened awareness of humans’ responsibility to
safeguard and protect these animals.
According to David Hancocks, former director of the
Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, “When [circuses] portray animals as freaks
and curiosities, devoid of context or dignity, circuses are
perpetuating outdated attitudes. Wild animals in the circus are reduced
to mere caricatures of their kind, exhibited just for financial gain. In
this way, they corrupt our children, promoting the notion that
exploitation and degradation is acceptable, even brave or funny.”
We operate a 200-acre state-of-the-art facility dedicated to
breeding, research, and retirement of Asian elephants.
The elephants at Ringling’s breeding compound in Florida only
have access to a fraction of the property. When they are not chained,
the elephants are confined to barns and small, barren outdoor paddocks.
Ringling’s Williston, Fla., facility—also referred to as its retirement
center—has several elephants who are infected with or exposed to a human
strain of tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB). In
September 2006, two male elephants at its breeding center also tested
positive for TB and three female elephants were pulled off the road
because they had been exposed to diseased elephants.
Our elephant care practices are in line with those set out
in the “Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide” published by the
International Elephant Foundation (IEF) with the support of the
Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the Elephant Managers
As a founding board member of the IEF, Ringling helped
develop the “Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide.” Ringling may have felt a
need to develop this guide because the circus does not comply with the
existing AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care. Ringling does
not provide its elephants on the road with AZA’s minimum space
requirements, and the elephants are subjected to prolonged chaining.
Ringling Bros. elephants are healthy, thriving, vigorous,
The USDA has noted on Ringling inspection reports that some
of the circus’s elephants suffer from lameness, foot abscesses, and
arthritis. At least eight of the 24 elephant deaths at Ringling since
1992 were attributable to either osteoarthritis or a chronic foot
problem—a common problem in captive elephants caused by lack of space
and forced inactivity. In a book titled The Elephant’s Foot,
former Ringling veterinarian Gary West contributed a chapter about foot
care. West wrote, “Foot-related conditions and arthritis are the leading
cause of euthanasia in captive elephants in the United States.”
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