Protection of Asian Elephants

Ringling elephant - Photo by Dustin Oliver

Case Name: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, et al. v. Ringling Brothers, et al. Original complaint filed on 7/11/2000 in case number 1:2000-cv-01641. This case was consolidated with 1:2003-cv-2006, original complaint filed 9/26/2003. On 03/25/13, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was removed from the case caption after entering into a settlement with Feld Entertainment, thereafter, AWI became the first named party.

Nature of Case: The Animal Welfare Institute and its original co-plaintiffs, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute (now known as Born Free USA), and Tom Rider (now deceased), brought claims against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc. (Feld), for the mistreatment of Asian elephants, alleging that a number of the circus’s routine practices violate the Endangered Species Act, including the forceful use of bull hooks to train, control, and “discipline” elephants as well as the continuous chaining of elephants for most of the day and night.

Court: US District Court for the District of Columbia

Appellate Court: US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit

Status: On December 30, 2009, the Honorable Emmet G. Sullivan dismissed the case on the grounds that plaintiffs lacked sufficient standing to pursue their claims. Since the Court found a lack of jurisdiction, it did not rule on the merits of the case, including the extensive evidence regarding the mistreatment of elephants, which was presented during the six-week trial. The Animal Welfare Institute and its co-plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which issued a decision affirming the district court’s ruling on October 28, 2011. On January 11, 2012, the Court of Appeals denied the plaintiff’s petition for rehearing.

Thereafter, Feld moved for an award of attorneys’ fees in the original action. Feld also filed a separate, unprecedented action against the original plaintiffs and their original attorneys, which AWI has viewed as retributive in nature. On May 15, 2014, all remaining parties announced a settlement agreement resolving both actions.

“Once the trial and appellate courts determined that no decision would be reached on the merits of the evidence concerning the alleged abuse of Asian elephants in Feld’s circus, the legal proceedings stopped being about the protection of elephants. Nonetheless, as a result of all the facts discovered and presented as evidence at trial, Feld’s treatment of Asian elephants has finally been exposed for the public to see. With this settlement, we are better able to move forward with our mission to alleviate the suffering and harm inflicted by people on animals everywhere, including those animals in the entertainment industry,” stated AWI’s President, Cathy Liss.

For AWI’s press release on the settlement agreement, click here.

Complete docket information for both actions is available at

Find out more about the background of the case, check out case media, or learn more about issues facing elephants.


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, the case went to trial on Tuesday, February 3, 2009 before the Honorable Emmet Sullivan in the US 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 as endangered under the ESA. The lawsuit alleged that a number of routine practices by Ringling Bros. violate the ESA, 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 was 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 the deaths of baby elephants who have died in the care of Ringling Bros. 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.

The Plaintiffs 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. The Plaintiffs 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.

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