The American Society for the Prevention
of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Animal Welfare Institute,
and The Fund For Animals filed a lawsuit today in U.S.
District Court in the District of Columbia, under the Freedom
of Information Act, to learn how much U.S. Dept. of
Agriculture (USDA) knows about the routine, systematic
abuse of elephants in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum &
Over the last five years, the USDA has initiated several
investigations of Ringling Bros. under the Animal Welfare Act,
the law protecting animals in the circus. In virtually every
instance, investigations were quietly "closed" or settled
without pursuing any federal charges and without disclosing
the underlying investigatory evidence to the public.
Investigations were triggered by eye-witness reports from
former Ringling. Bros. employees who testified that animals
were chained up to 24 hours a day and beaten with
bullhooks to "train" and control them. In one instance, an
investigation was triggered by USDA's own inspectors who
saw baby elephants with large bloody lesions at Ringling
Bros.' elephant breeding facility in Florida. In May of this
year, attorneys for the plaintiffs made a formal request for
the documents and have since been refused access to the
evidence in the federal government's possession.
"Under the law, the USDA must let the public know what
evidence it is sitting on from closed investigations
conducted in the last four years concerning Ringling
Brothers' treatment of endangered Asian elephants," stated
Katherine Meyer, attorney for the plaintiffs.
"Although the USDA has conducted more than a dozen
investigations of charges that Ringling Brothers' abused their
elephants, the USDA has refused to release the
documentation collected during their investigations," said
Lisa Weisberg, ASPCA senior vice president of government
affairs and public policy.
This lawsuit comes during the criminal trial in San Jose,
California against Mark Oliver Gebel, one of the biggest stars
of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, on
charges that he abused an endangered Asian elephant by
striking it with an ankus — a long, pole with a sharp metal
point on the end of it — leaving an open, bleeding wound.
The groups, who already have several recent videotapes of
Ringling Bros.' employees poking and hitting the animals with
bullhooks and other instruments, are invoking the public's
"right to know" under the Freedom of Information Act to
shed public light on why the USDA has failed to take any
enforcement action against the multi-million dollar circus.
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