All for Show

Ringling Brothers" Circus Claims to Promote Conservation

On a cool, rainy afternoon, inside Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, children and parents crowd the cavernous hall trying to get a closer look at Asia, the elephant who paints with her trunk. Asia is a star of the "three-ring adventure" in the 133rd edition of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey circus, the largest and oldest in the U.S. As families mill about they see posters describing Ringling’s efforts to protect endangered Asian elephants. The tagline reads: "Endangered species? Not if we can help it."

Two hours later, the show wraps up, having featured elephants (including "five parallel pachyderms" that raise their hind legs on stools), tigers, zebras, horses, llamas, dogs and a few goats. The ringmaster thanks people for coming and "helping to support the world’s endangered species."

Elephants are circus crowd-pleasers, but has Ringling Brothers really become conservation minded?©PETA

It may sound like an unusual pairing—protecting endangered species by putting them in the circus—but Ringling has become an actor in this new arena. In 1995, Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s corporate parent (which also owns the Disney on Ice and Siegfried and Roy shows), established the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC), a $5 million, 200-acre Asian elephant breeding and research facility in Polk City, Florida. Since 1992, when Ringling began a breeding program, 15 elephants have been born, more than anywhere else in North America, including zoos.

While not all of these elephants will become circus performers, all will remain captive and have their performance potential vetted. Ringling now controls 61 Asian elephants, including the 21 traveling in the circus" two touring units. "We are really leading the world," says Barbara Pflughaupt, Ringling’s national press representative, with the "largest gene pool outside of Southeast Asia." Ringling states that a portion—it won’t say how much—of all its ticket and concession sales goes to conservation efforts through the CEC.

The CEC is host to elephant trainers, veterinarians and researchers (including one now studying elephants" sense of smell, potentially to reduce elephant/human conflicts in the wild.) Ringling suggests that sperm from its male elephants could be used to regenerate the animals" population in Asia, when technology allows. Conservation biologist Tom Dillon, director of the Species Conservation Program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), dismisses this. He says the likelihood of needing sperm from CEC elephants is close to zero, given diversity in the wild Asian elephant gene pool and the large number of captive elephants still in Asia.

What Ringling defines as its commitment to conservation isn’t confined to the CEC. In 1998, it helped found the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), which works in Asia and Africa to improve management, training and health of captive elephant populations. It also advises captive breeding programs and, in a few cases, supports field-based management or research on wild elephants.

John Kirtland, Ringling’s executive director of animal stewardship and an animal behaviorist by training, says the CEC’s and IEF’s efforts are still a "work in progress," although the commitment is there. The work includes assistance to a hospital for injured elephants (some the victims of land mines).

Ringling’s influence is also felt at global meetings on endangered species and within the U.S. Congress. In 1997, it joined efforts to pass the Asian Elephant Conservation Act, which has over the past few years provided more than $3 million for habitat protection, community-based conservation education, and anti-poaching patrols. WWF’s Dillon calls this "essential money." By some accounts, Ringling’s participation helped secure support for the Act from Congressional Republicans, many of whom look more favorably on Ringling than on conservation groups.

For years, animal rights and welfare groups have been protesting Ringling’s use of animals, particularly endangered species such as elephants and tigers. They complain of cruel training, transport and living conditions, and urge the public to avoid circuses that include animal acts. Last July, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. handed animal advocates, including the Fund for Animals and the ASPCA, a legal victory in their efforts to hold Ringling accountable. The groups" lawsuit, now moving forward, charges Ringling with violating the Endangered Species Act by abusing elephants through routine circus practices (using bullhooks, chaining them for long periods, and weaning baby elephants too young).

A growing number of cities are banning circuses with animal acts, and activists are not convinced that Ringling has changed. The lives of elephants born at the CEC "will be filled with chains and bullhooks," charges Debbie Leahy, director of captive and exotic animals for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "The fact that wild populations are still dwindling is proof enough that what they’re doing isn’t doing a darn bit of good."

Some animal behaviorists and conservation professionals are also skeptical about Ringling’s conservation work. "They’re not making a substantial contribution," says Marc Bekoff, a professor of biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder and frequent collaborator with Jane Goodall. "It’s a captive breeding program in Florida."

Conservationists and animal welfare groups agree that the greatest threat to Asian elephants is loss of habitat, as burgeoning human populations and extractive industries push into wilderness. Other threats include poaching for ivory (in contravention of a global trade ban imposed in 1989) and capture for domestic uses. Since the 1960s, the elephants" historic range has declined by 70 percent. Only about 35,000 Asian elephants still live in the wild.

According to Ringling, running the CEC costs at minimum $1 million a year. Asked why Ringling doesn’t redirect its efforts from breeding elephants to habitat conservation, Pflughaupt replies: "Habitat is another thing. We’re not a conservation organization. We’re a circus responsible for the care of our animals."

Pflughaupt contends that the elephants are better off with Ringling. "They’re safer with us," she says. ""Better off in the wild" is an ivory tower position." But is Ringling practicing "conservation" as it is commonly understood, or seeking to ensure an available captive elephant population along with a public that continues to approve of and demand animal acts in circuses?

On another cold and dreary spring day, about 25 animal activists gather in front of New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the Ringling Bros. Circus is performing. A poster with a photo of a chained elephant’s leg reads: "The slave trade is alive and kicking—elephants in circuses—you choose, they can"t."

Activists charge that Ringling has supported a loosening of the ban on elephant ivory sales at meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Pflughaupt denies that the company takes a position on the ivory issue. But in 2002, CITES delegates (with Bush administration support) voted to allow some trade in African ivory, a move opposed by most conservation and

animal welfare and rights groups. "This is ivory from animals that have already died," says Pflughaupt, "and my understanding is that the money would go to conservation."

Even a partial reopening of the ivory trade will have a devastating effect on wild elephants, argues PETA’s Leahy. Another action that raises activists" ire is Feld’s recent $7,000 campaign contribution to U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), chair of the House Resources Committee, who supports trophy hunting and "sustainable use" (selective culling, including for trophies) of wild populations, including elephants.

Meanwhile, habitat protection efforts are woefully underfunded. "They’re exploiting the Asian elephant for profit and you’d think they could support its continued existence in the wild," Dillon says of Ringling. "It’s nice they’ve put money into Thailand’s captive elephant program, but putting the money into conservation of wild elephants would be a better use of the funds."