- - Friday, March 6, 2015

The Greatest Show on Earth is losing its biggest stars. And millions of Americans will miss them.

The circus elephants are leaving America’s towns because of community organizers — PETA activists. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus won a resounding victory in federal court against other animal rights groups that claimed elephants are victims of abuse.

But ultimately the circus could not fight city hall. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) persuaded dozens of key communities to pass local laws that effectively kept the circus from coming to their town. In part, PETA did this by exploiting women while condemning exploitation of elephants.

Bowing to years of pressure campaigns, Ringling Brothers will remove elephants from their shows in 2018, once they finish current tours and commitments. Thus ends 144 years of delight for children of all ages (which includes many of us grown-ups).

Ringling Brothers has always maintained that it takes good and proper care of their elephants, but activists complained for years about the treatment of the animals. Many accusations were false and Ringling Brothers won a huge court victory against its major accusers. But facts win only in court, not in politics.

On one occasion, in 2011, Ringling Brothers paid a $270,000 fine over alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. It was not specific to elephants; the written settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which oversees the act) did not describe any violations. The agreement expressly stated that the circus denied any wrongdoing, but nevertheless agreed to improve training of animal workers.

The larger federal effort was 14 years of civil litigation that ended in 2014 with a big win for the big top. The accusers, the Humane Society and the ASPCA – American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – claimed that Ringling Brothers violates the Endangered Species Act by abusing elephants. The tables were turned, however, and those accusers ended up paying $25-million to Ringling Brothers for making false claims.

A federal judge found that those groups — ASPCA and Humane Society — had paid a former circus worker $190,000 to be their “paid plaintiff” in that lawsuit. The judge found the man was not credible and had lied under oath. The circus counter-sued that the activists had conspired to violate RICO laws against racketeering and corruption. Those groups ended up paying the circus $25 million.

But a different group is now celebrating and emboldened by Ringling Brothers’ announcement that the elephants will soon be gone from their shows.

PETA was not a party to the federal lawsuit but now has succeeded with its local attack strategy — enacting laws that effectively block elephant acts from major arenas. Without enough places to perform, Ringling Brothers’ national tours get wrecked, so PETA targeted places that were traditional stops.

One of those stops is Washington, D.C., on March 19th.

The key feature of the PETA-pushed local ordinances is to ban animal trainers from using bullhooks, also known as elephant goads or guides. These sticks or poles have a hook on the end, typically used on areas unprotected by an elephant’s thick hide.

Ringling Brothers explains that it is unsafe for audiences if handlers cannot use bullhooks when necessary to control the animals. Their elephants, typically weighing 10,000 to 12,000 pounds when fully grown, are trained with bullhooks from birth through adulthood. It’s not easy to get such behemoths to go in a desired direction, much less do tricks such as balancing atop a ball or standing on their heads.

Elephant goads have been used worldwide for centuries and are common in many zoos as well as circuses. PETA, however, refers to them as “weapons” and “torture devices.” Every time an elephant is struck with a goad, it is labeled a “beating.”

PETA’s efforts achieved momentum in recent months as it picked off city council members one-by-one with what PETA considers horror stories. Oakland, California, enacted PETA’s proposed bullhook restrictions in December 2014. Los Angeles did so in April 2014 (with a 2017 effective date). Austin, Texas, is in the process of drafting a proposal, as are Richmond, Virginia, and Stockton, California. Places previously enacting the ban include Miami Beach, Pompano Beach and other Florida locales, plus cities and counties in South Carolina, New York, Kentucky and Indiana.

Fulton County, Georgia, created a local ban in 2011, but a judge declared it did not apply within Atlanta city limits so Ringling Brothers still played in Atlanta. But in February 2015, an animal handler and owner of the UniverSoul Circus were charged in Fulton County with “abusive behavior towards an elephant” for using a bullhook. PETA claims one of its people was the whistleblower who reported the event.

PETA has an entire online kit for activists, outlining “Steps to Take When the Circus Comes to Town.” Suggestions include:

  • Try to get it canceled.

  • Check to ensure that the circus obtained the proper permits.

  • Contact your local school boards to discourage school promotions.

  • Find out where the animals are being unloaded and be there with a camcorder and/or camera.

  • Organize a demonstration on opening night.

  • Write a letter to the editor. Read our quick facts about the circus for points to make.

  • Start a legislative campaign to ban circuses and other traveling exhibits in your town or county.

Having chased circus elephants out of America’s towns, PETA is emboldened with its other goals. It has an ongoing campaign to remove elephants from all zoos as well as circuses; it labels zoos as “pitiful prisons.” It wants us to be vegans who never wear fur or use leather. It won passage of a chicken rights law in California which is increasing the price of eggs. PETA wants to ban horse-drawn carriages. Its website refers to fishing as “aquatic agony.”

PETA claims 3-million members, has a $34-million budget and 300 paid employees. It enlists celebrities for its advertising and promotions. PETA exploits women with a bevy of ads showing nude women (recently Olivia Munn) and captions such as “I’d rather be naked than wear fur” or “Let elephants be free. Boycott the circus.”

The group also goes too far in other ways. PETA in 2011 sued SeaWorld, claiming that five orcas were being held as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. “Slavery is slavery, and it does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on gender, race, or religion,” said PETA’s general counsel, Jeffrey Kerr.

Audaciously, PETA filed the federal lawsuit claiming to represent the killer whales and naming the animals as their plaintiffs: Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises. The judge threw out the case. Yet PETA president Ingrid Newkirk complained, “They are denied freedom … while kept in small concrete tanks and reduced to performing stupid tricks. The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery, and these orcas are, by definition, slaves.”

PETA does many colorful and fascinating things. Perhaps, as a replacement for performing elephants, PETA will take its show on the road, circus-style, as a rival to the all-human Cirque du Soleil. But a PETA circus would be low on laughs and thrills. It might be cruelty of a different sort — this time cruelty to the audience.

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