Top US circuses sued over 'gross cruelty' to elephants

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Two of the world's best-known circuses are accused by American animal welfare groups of cruel treatment of elephants.

Two of the world's best-known circuses are accused by American animal welfare groups of cruel treatment of elephants.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus have been targeted by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (Paws), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Fund for Animals and the Animal Welfare Institute. In a lawsuit, filed this week, they say the circuses have broken America's Endangered Species Act and other animal protection laws.

The lawsuit is part of a long-running campaign to apply animal welfare laws to circus animals, and bar circuses from using animals.

The groups claim the circuses broke the law by beating elephants to train them, forcibly removed baby elephants from their mothers and failed to prevent the use of physical abuse in training.

A circus spokeswoman Catherine Ort-Mabry rejected the accusations. "Animals are an integral part of the Ringling Brothers family, and we provide the highest standards of care,"' she said. "Animals have been an important part of our shows for 130 years."

Paws has made circus elephants one of its great causes, claiming their use not only involves cruelty but endangers the public. "Paws has presented to Congress voluminous documentation about the danger to which the public is exposed to from these frivolous and cruel performances," said a spokesman.

The organisation was founded in 1985 by Hollywood animal trainer and author, Pat Derby, and her partner, Ed Stewart. It maintains two sanctuaries for captive wildlife in California.

But the two circuses claim solid public support. They say a survey shows 80 per cent of Americans thought animals should be part of the circus, and a majority said they believed there was already enough regulation to protect the health and welfare of circus animals.

"All our members are committed to providing elephant care at the highest professional level, and we support the responsible public display of elephants as a vitally important means of increasing public awareness of and concern for these animals in human care and in the wild," said David Hagan, president of the Elephant Managers' Association.

The US Congress is considering a bill, the Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act, which would all but ban circus elephants, proposed by Sam Farr, a Californian Democrat.

He said: "I am not interested in seeing the circus industry unduly hindered or encumbered. My bill is a practical, reasonable one that addresses a fundamental wrong in the entertainment industry."

Since 1983, he said, 28 people have been killed and 70 injured by performing elephants.