USDA Ignores Ringling Bros.' Elephant Abuse

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), the Fund for Animals (FFA), and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) just released an in-depth report revealing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) - responsible for enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act - routinely looks the other way when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey beats and otherwise mistreats the elephants in its circus.

The report, which can be viewed in full on AWI's website, was based on hundreds of records obtained through litigation and the Freedom of Information Act. The documents show that USDA ignored crucial evidence, closed investigations prematurely, and overrode its own inspectors' and investigators' determinations - allowing Ringling to dupe the public into believing that it doesn't mistreat its elephants. The 250 page report traces nine different investigations over five years, and includes the following revelations:

USDA investigators found that a trainer's use of a bullhook* on a baby elephant named Benjamin "created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal," yet the USDA memorandum closing the case omitted all references to this finding and instead stated that "suddenly, and without any signs of distress or struggle, Benjamin became unconscious and drowned." No enforcement action was taken by USDA.

USDA determined that Ringling's use of chains and ropes to isolate nursing elephants from their mothers forcibly at Ringling's "Center for Elephant Conservation" caused the animals "unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, [and] physical harm," and "was not in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act," yet the agency quietly closed the investigation without taking any enforcement action.

Two former Ringling employees provided detailed accounts of rampant beatings of the elephants. One of the elephants, Nicole, was beaten so badly the bullhook being used on her shattered. Following up on the complaint, USDA found elephants with scar tissue and recent wounds and collected affidavit testimony from current Ringling employees that bullhooks were commonly used and some of the elephants had boils as a result of their use. Again, USDA closed this case without taking action.

USDA has been extremely cooperative in helping Ringling keep the public from knowing that as many as eight elephants have tested positive for Tuberculosis, and many more have been exposed to the disease. In one instance, although a USDA investigator originally cited Ringling for failing to provide any medical treatment for an elephant who had tested positive, a high level USDA official later "overrode" that citation when Ringling's attorneys complained.

*A bullhook, otherwise known as an ankus, is a device with a metal head similar to a fireplace poker (including a sharp point) that sits on a two to three foot handle.

Ringling Bros.' elephants are restrained by short chains attached to one or more of their legs when they are not dressed up and forced to perform. Photos courtesy of Elephant Alliance files.