Animal rights debate follows circus to town

EVERETT — The nation’s foremost circus is in town.

That means smiling kids, world-class exotic animal performances, clowns and, lately, a battle to control the message.

At hand is a debate over the treatment of endangered Asian elephants, whose numbers are dwindling in the wild.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey Circus is planning seven shows at Comcast Arena at Everett Events Center tonight through Sunday.

“What they say about elephants never forgetting: It’s true,” said Carrie Coleman, a veterinary technician who travels with the elephants.

She said she’s seen the animals, which can live into their 70s, become overjoyed when they are reunited with their old trainers after a long absence.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and ­Lynnwood-based PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society) say circus life is inherently cruel to elephants and they plan to protest outside during the show’s Everett run.

“They’re just not being given the quality of life that we believe wild animals deserve,” said Mary Leake Schilder, a spokeswoman with PAWS.

The circus, which has 55 Asian elephants the largest herd in the Western hemisphere says it is a world leader in elephant conservation and that it adheres to strict animal welfare rules.

It is required by the government to keep accurate records of veterinary care and to comply with humane standards for housing, ventilation, lighting, feeding, watering and transporting the animals.

But it is coming under increasing scrutiny by animal-rights groups that say they have evidence that proves Ringling Bros. engages in widespread abuse of the giant creatures.

Last month, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., denied an attempt by Ringling Bros. to throw out a lawsuit accusing trainers of abusing elephants with sharpened “bull hooks,” inhumanly chaining the animals and separating babies from their mothers in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit was filed in 2000 by the Alexandria, Va., Animal Welfare Institute. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups later joined on.

Ringling Bros. says the charges are distortions spun by animal-rights extremists trying to tarnish its outstanding record of animal care.

In an effort to manage animal cruelty claims before this week’s events, the circus hired a marketing firm from Seattle to give the media a look at how elephants are treated by circus trainers.

The sneak peak included an interview with handlers, a veterinary technician and an up-close look at 10 female Asian elephants ranging in age 23 to 54.

Two were bought from logging camps in Thailand; the rest were born in zoos or bought from other circuses.

Around the venue, Ringling Bros. hung banners bolstering the work of its $5 million Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, which has seen 20 elephant births there since it opened about a decade ago.

One of the most disputed claims brought by animal-rights groups is the use of the guide sticks, also known as bull hooks, to control the animals.

Animal-rights activists say the tools are used to intimidate the animals to get them to behave.

Circus officials say the tools are used to direct the elephants, not beat them.

“It’s like an extension of the owners hand,” Coleman said. “It’s like a tap on the shoulder.”

The animal-rights groups say they have videos they argue show the tool being used to hobble elephants.

“If it was just a tap on the shoulder we wouldn’t get bloody wounds from them hitting an elephant,” said Jason Bayless, an activist from PETA’s headquarters in Virginia who is in Everett. He’s been following Ringling Bros. with a video camera since the show visited Phoenix a few weeks ago.

Ryan Henning, a senior animal handler for Ringling Bros. whose family has been in the circus for three generations, said people who work with the intelligent creatures often develop strong attachments to them.

The 23-year-old Milwaukee native said they will purr or trumpet depending on how they feel. Often when he’s having a bad day, an elephant will pick up on that and nudge him with her trunk.

“Just because they’re 10,000 pounds doesn’t mean they’re not affectionate,” he said.

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or dchircop@heraldnet.com.

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