Protection of Asian Elephants: Background

In 2000, the Animal Welfare Institute, three other national animal welfare organizations, and former Ringling Bros. employee, Tom Rider, filed suit against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, Inc. for the mistreatment of Asian elephants under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Following countless legal challenges by the defendants, this groundbreaking lawsuit finally went to trial on Tuesday, February 3, 2009 before the Honorable Emmet Sullivan in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The ESA prohibits any activity that "takes" a species listed as endangered. This includes any acts that "harm, wound, injure, harass, or kill" an endangered species - both those in the wild and in captivity.

Asian elephants, the only elephant species used by Ringling Bros., are currently listed by the ESA as endangered. Our lawsuit alleges that a number of routine practices by Ringling Bros. violate the Act, including: (1) the forceful use of bull hooks  to control, train and "discipline" the elephants and (2) the chaining of the elephants for most of the day and night.

A wealth of evidence to support the claims of elephant mistreatment were presented at trial, including video footage, photographs, eyewitness accounts, internal Ringling Bros. documents and investigative reports from the United States Department of Agriculture. Several former Ringling Bros. employees testified at trial about the elephant abuse they observed firsthand while working for the circus, and top experts in the field of elephant behavior from around the world testified in support of claims made about the welfare of the elephants.

As part of the demonstration at trial as to how Ringling Bros. mistreats its Asian elephants, evidence was presented involving the circumstances of death of baby elephants who have died in the care of Ringling Bros. over the past few years. Four-year-old Benjamin died when his trainer came after him with a bull hook. Four-year-old Kenny was made to perform in three shows when he was extremely ill. Eight-month-old Riccardo mysteriously broke both of his hind legs while "climbing on a round platform 19 inches high," and eleven-day-old Bertha died in the summer of 2005. Her birth and death were never even publicly announced by Ringling Bros.

Bull Hook

A "bull hook" or "ankus" is a two to three foot long club or stick with a sharp metal or steel hook attached to the top. Ringling Bros. uses the bull hook repeatedly to beat, hit, stab and poke the elephants - especially when they are young - to control and "break" them so they perform as required. Although elephants are thought to have strong hides, their skin is extremely sensitive, particularly around the ears, face, trunk and head - places where they are most often struck with the bull hook. Elephant skin is so sensitive that these animals often throw dust or mud on their backs in the wild to protect themselves from sunburn. Once the elephants have been repeatedly abused with bull hooks for long periods of time, just showing them the instrument often serves as a sufficient threat to make them perform the unnatural acts as required by the commercial operation.

We presented substantial evidence at trial establishing that Ringling Bros. abuses its elephants with bull hooks, including eye-witness accounts of former Ringling Bros. employees who have witnessed vicious bull hook beatings of elephants and the daily hitting and hooking of these animals to make them stay in line, move in a particular direction, or perform on cue. We also presented hours of video footage showing Ringling Bros. handlers hitting and hooking elephants with bull hooks, not to mention internal Ringling Bros. documents illustrating the abuse. In one such document, a Ringling Bros. animal behaviorist reported "an elephant dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show from being hooked."


Ringling Bros. keeps the elephants in large, heavy-duty chains for most of their lives. Internal Ringling Bros. train records show that the elephants are chained in boxcars for an average of more than 26 consecutive hours. When the circus travels from city to city, elephants are often chained for 60 to 70 hours at a time, with records showing some cases where the duration reaches 90 to 100 hours.  One of the only times the elephants are not in chains is when they are displayed to the public, such as during the "Open House" and the actual performances, which was confirmed at trial by several former Ringling Bros. employees.  Evidence at trial demonstrated that such chaining causes physical and psychological harm to the animals.