Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus On Trial
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Born Free
November 2009

Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute (Born Free USA), along with three other animal protection organizations and a former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (Ringling) employee, is suing Ringling for violating the Endangered Species Act by cruelly mistreating Asian elephants. The trial has concluded and we are awaiting a decision by the judge. We are uncertain to when this will be, but will let you know as soon as we hear.

The Asian elephant is currently listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), meaning that any acts that would “harm, wound, injure, harass, or kill” an Asian elephant in the wild or in captivity are prohibited. The lawsuit alleges that a number of routine practices by Ringling are in violation of the Endangered Species Act, including the forceful use of a bullhook and the chaining of elephants for most of the day and night. We have amassed a wealth of evidence to support these claims.

Bullhook Use

A bullhook, or ankus, is made of wood, metal, or other substantial material. It is approximately 2 to 3 feet long, and at one end is a sharp steel hook and poker. It is used to poke, prod, strike, and hit animals to “train” them — all for a few moments of human amusement.

We have video footage of Ringling employees repeatedly hitting elephants with bullhooks, as well as video footage of the daily hitting and “hooking” of the elephants to make them stay in line, move in a particular direction, or perform on cue.

In addition, we have Ringling’s own internal written documents that discuss the mistreatment of the elephants. For example, Ringling’s animal behaviorist reported “an elephant dripping blood all over the arena floor during the show from being hooked.” In an internal email, a Ringling veterinary assistant reported that “[a]fter this morning’s baths, at least 4 of the elephants came in with multiple abrasions and lacerations from the hooks.” After the release of this information to the public, Ringling moved to prohibit the release of any additional information to the public provided via discovery.


Chaining is one of the most common methods used to confine elephants in captivity. It severely restricts an elephant’s movements, eliminating its ability to lie down, walk, or socialize with other elephants. The severity of these restrictions can result in neurotic psychological behavior, physical injury, and even the death of captive elephants.

Newly obtained evidence based on the circus’s own documents reveals that Ringling keeps elephants virtually immobilized in chains for the majority of their lives. Internal records show that the elephants are chained while confined in boxcars for an average of more than 26 hours at a time, and sometimes for as much as 60–100 hours, as the circus moves across the country.

In addition, former Ringling employees will be testifying about the mistreatment they witnessed while working for the circus, all of which corroborates the claims alleged in this case.

In addition to Born Free USA, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and Tom Rider, a former Ringling employee.

The lawsuit is pending before the Honorable Emmet J. Sullivan in federal district court in the District of Columbia and is being handled by Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, one of the country’s preeminent environmental law firms.

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