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[whitespace] Tom Rider
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Elephant Man

By Eric A. Carlson

"The abuse at Ringling Brothers is 6 out of 7 days a week."

-Tom Rider

CALL ME A TREE hugger, but after watching several hours of video of elephants being abused at various circus stops around the country, and the sad parade of animals being led down the dung-filled avenues of San Jose to the San Jose Compaq Center/Hewlett Packard Arena (the site of this year's Ringling Brothers Circus), I am on board with Tom Rider and Kathleen Flynn in their fight against Ringling Brothers--the Cruelest Show on Earth. Seeing is believing.

The instrument of pain is the bull hook, or ankus, a 3-foot-long rod with a hooked tip. It is effective against elephants because they have extremely sensitive skin. A Ringling Brothers employee (in video Tom Rider provided) said that circus policy requires the ankus to be used only as a guide or a tool. Video taken over the last two years depicts otherwise--elephants were struck on the back of their legs to get them to move faster, and bull-hooked to encourage them to perform tricks or to move from place to place. I saw a young elephant whacked on the trunk for simply raising its trunk to a tether; the handler grinned broadly at the frightened animal's pained reaction.

Tom told me that when Ringling Brothers was presented evidence of elephant cruelty, they promised the abusers would be reprimanded. It might not have "taken," as the circus was cited at this year's San Jose performance for an alleged violation of California Penal Code 596.5--Cruelty to Elephants, against an elephant named Asia. The circus was also cited for allegedly allowing a Yak to run loose and for allegedly hosing raw animal waste down street drains that flow to the bay. Sorry about that, Alviso.

Tom Rider hired on with Ringling Brothers in 1997, as a "barn man," and for the next two-and-a-half years tended elephants. He grew fond of the tusked behemoths, and referred to them as "his girls." He still does. Tom witnessed a discouraging and systematic mistreatment of his girls, and when he opted out of Ringling Brothers, he decided to follow the circus--wherever it went--to hound the malefactors and inform the local press of what lay behind the shadows.

According to Tom, Ringling Brothers hires men with little or no experience to care for the animals. Tom related that in his entire stay with the circus, he was unaware of a bona fide animal trainer ever being hired. When problems did occur, such as animals bolting, there were too few employees to control them.

Catherine Ort-Mabry, Director of Corporate Communications for Feld Entertainment/Ringling Bros., didn't want to go into detail about the allegations because of pending litigation. However, she called the charges "unwarranted." "Our animal care staff is composed of experts who have devoted their lives to caring for the animals at Ringling Bros.," she told us via email. She called the ankus "an elephant management tool that has been in use for thousands of years." The elephant's handler, she assures us, considers Asia his elephant "auntie" and would never take any action that would hurt her.

Kathleen Flynn showed me video of the Ringling Brothers Circus in San Jose. It showed animals being kept in the parking lot next to the Arena. At one point, in the street, a horse bolted free in the vicinity of children, before being corralled. The avenue between the Arena and the parking lot holding the animals was covered in dung--which was left in the street for hours. A tape of last year's circus showed two zebras--chained together--bolting from a lone handler. They ran on either side of a light pole--the chain caught, and they slammed to the ground, stunned. Raucous laughter rang out in the night.

Final Note: On Kathleen's suggestion I examined Title 7 of the San Jose Municipal Code which deals with animals. These codes are just a bit convoluted, but even I could see that San Jose, the owner of the Arena, was stretching the definition of a few of the edicts concerning dangerous animals, to allow the circus to take place there. To say the least.

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From the October 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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