The Circus is in Town, Can PETA Be Far Behind? (No)

At high noon today, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protesters will rally outside Reliant Stadium to speak out against what it says is bad treatment of elephants by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

"Houston residents would run screaming from the big top if they knew how baby elephants are violently forced to perform difficult, confusing and sometimes painful tricks, " Delcianna Winders, director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement for the PETA Foundation, said in a press release.

We talked with Winders, who cited a settlement in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture had documented some less than sterling treatment of elephants (forcing an elephant to work while sick with diarrhea, using the same wheelbarrow to haul waste and serve food) by Ringling between 2007 and 2011 and ordered it to pay a fine of $270,000 -- said to be the largest fine in circus history -- for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Whether this went down as a (relatively cheap) cost of doing business is anyone's guess.

We also talked with Ringling Bros elephant trainer Ryan Henning said he has and he would continue to invite anyone, anytime to check out his elephants. "All of our animals receive the highest standard of care, 24-7."

He said the USDA settlement was "to settle things that I believe were from the past and we're just looking to move forward."

And anyhow, he said, if captivity was so terrible, why do their elephants have such long lives as compared to what would happen to them in the wild?

PETA and its representatives, of course, do not see the elephants' lives as happy ones, however long they might be. They point particularly to baby elephants who they say are restrained for most of the day for months until their spirit is broken. And among their photo gallery pictures the shot where circus trainers teach a baby elephant to sit on a stool, seems, well kind of cute and really sad at the same time.

Henning says none of his animals are mistreated. He insists that other than when they are being fed, sleeping or traveling on a train, the circus elephants move freely in their enclosures. "You can see the baby elephants running around and socializing," he said.

"Unfortunately there are some extremists out there that don't agree with animals as entertainment whether it's circus, TV or movies. They target us because we are simply The Greatest Show on Earth. We have the largest sustainable herd of captive elephants in the western hemisphere so we're a large target."

Using taut ropes is common in the training of many animals and the elephant pictured is on soft, thick sand, Henning said. He denied they use electric prods, but rather emply "guides" that are fiberglass rods with a curve on one end. "We do build relationships with them."

"If they were safe in the wild, they wouldn't be on the endangered species list," he added.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus performances will run July 12 through July 29 at Reliant.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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