Circus faces elephant cruelty case

When the Ringling Brothers' circus comes to New York next month, the city's grown-up kids will be able to watch the elephants make their way through the streets of Manhattan to Madison Square Garden. But if animal rights' groups – pitted against the circus owners in a trial that begins in Washington tomorrow morning – have their way, this year's parade, which began in 1919, might be the last.

Several groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Welfare Institute, filed a suit against the owners of the Ringling, Feld Entertainment, in 2000, charging that the elephants were mistreated. It has taken almost a decade of legal wrangling to bring the case before a judge.

The plaintiffs will tell the court that circus trainers regularly wound the animals with sharp bullhooks to nudge them around, confine them in overcrowded and poorly ventilated shelters and regularly chain their legs – all practices that allegedly violate provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act. According to court papers, the elephants are sometimes chained up in railwaywagons for up to 70 hours at a time.

But, according to the defence, the goal of the plaintiffs is more radical than an improvement of the elephants' surroundings, that they "are hoping to put an end to circus elephants". Not true, counters Tracy Silverman, a lawyer for Animal Welfare. "We simply want the elephants to be treated humanely and in accordance with the law," she told The New York Times. The case is expected to last about three weeks.

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