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Animal Protection Groups Ask Federal Court to Halt Ringling Bros.’ Cruel Chaining and Confinement of Endangered Asian Elephants

May 21, 2008

Washington, D.C. — Today, a coalition of animal protection organizations and a former Ringling Bros. employee asked a federal district court in Washington D.C. to immediately order a halt to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (Ringling Bros.)’s cruel practice of shackling and confining endangered Asian elephants for days on end in a manner that prevents them from walking or even turning around in place.

Newly obtained evidence based on the circus’s own documents reveals that Ringling Bros. keeps elephants virtually immobilized in chains for the majority of their lives. Internal records of the circus’s train travels 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 without a break as the circus moves across the country.

“The evidence is simply shocking,” says Lisa Weisberg, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “The public should be outraged at the amount of time these animals are forced to be shackled and confined, and Ringling Bros. should be ashamed at hiding this cruelty from the public eye.”

“We hope that the Court will order Ringling Bros. to immediately unchain these incredibly intelligent and, social animals and spare them from suffering a lifetime of misery,” says Tracy Silverman, General Counsel for Animal Welfare Institute. “No animal should be chained for days at a time, week after week, month after month and year after year.”

The request for an immediate halt to prolonged chaining and confinement of elephants is part of a groundbreaking lawsuit by the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, The Fund for Animals, Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute (Born Free USA), and former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider against Ringling Bros. Circus.  The suit alleges that the circus is violating the Endangered Species Act by abusively training and disciplining elephants with sharp implements such as bullhooks, and by intensively confining and chaining the animals for prolonged periods of time.

“Shackling elephants for days on end without the ability to walk or even turn around is inherently cruel,” said Michael Markarian, President of The Fund for Animals.  “Endangered species deserve something better than a lifetime of suffering.”

Although Ringling Bros. has denied that the elephants spend most of their lives in chains, former circus employees and other witnesses have given sworn testimony to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the elephants are kept tightly chained by one front and hind leg — unable to move freely or even turn around — for hours on end.

“The overwhelming evidence we have obtained confirms what former Ringling Bros. employees have said for years about the unimaginable cruelty that goes on under — and behind — the Big Top,” says Nicole G. Paquette, Senior Vice President for Born Free USA. “These new revelations of prolonged chaining of elephants should not only have significant implications for this case, but also assist in our national efforts to pass legislation prohibiting cruel training practices commonly used on captive elephants.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.

Media Contacts:


  • Ringling Bros.’ own internal train records show that the elephants are chained in boxcars for an average of more than 26 hours, and often 60–70 hours at a time, when the circus travels from city to city.
  • The records also show that in some cases, the elephants have been kept chained on trains for 90–100 hours.
  • Elephants at Ringling Bros.’ “Center for Elephant Conservation” (CEC) are also kept in chains (details about this cannot yet be made public because of a protective order that has been entered in the case). The CEC is where elephants are bred to produce more elephants for the circus.
  • In the wild, elephants travel many miles each day.
  • Research shows that chaining and confining animals for days at a time leads to psychological and severe physical problems such as arthritis, crippling foot problems, and behavior that is indicative of high levels of stress.

Copies of these documents are available upon request.

Timeline of Case

  • May 21, 2008 – Plaintiffs file Motion for Preliminary Injunction on chaining claim until the Court has a trial and issues a final decision about all of plaintiffs’ claims.
  • January 30, 2008 – Fact Discovery closes.
  • August 23, 2007 – U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan issues a ruling rejecting Ringling Bros.’ attempts to have the case dismissed, and permitting the plaintiffs’ case to proceed to trial.
  • October 2006 – After being ordered to do so by the court, Ringling Bros. discloses the internal veterinary records for the elephants, which show elephants with severe foot, leg, and other injuries.
  • August 2006 – Baby elephant Bertha dies at the CEC — the details of her death have never been revealed.
  • September 2005 – The federal district judge assigned to the case announces that he will "incarcerat[e]" Ringling Bros.' lawyers and executives if they do not turn over critical veterinary documents that were required to be produced much earlier in the litigation.
  • August 2004 – 2-year-old Riccardo mysteriously dies at the CEC after falling while “climbing on a tub.”
  • February 2003 – A unanimous panel of the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia finds that the plaintiffs have standing to sue Ringling Bros. for its mistreatment of Asian elephants.
  • June 2000 – Animal welfare groups file suit against Ringling Bros. in federal court in the District of Columbia under the Endangered Species Act to stop Ringling Bros.’ inhumane and unlawful mistreatment of highly endangered Asian elephants.
  • July 1999 – Baby elephant Benjamin drowns in a pond when traveling between Ringling Bros. shows; witnesses state that he was evading his Ringling Bros. handler who had chased him with a bullhook.
  • February 1999 – USDA cites Ringling Bros. after inspectors observe large rope burn "lesions" on two baby elephants — Doc and Angelica — caused by forcibly separating the babies from their mothers well before the end of their natural weaning period.
  • January 1998 – USDA concludes that baby elephant Kenny dies after being made to perform by Ringling despite the fact that he is extremely ill.


Posted: May 23, 2008