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Circus CEO defends striking of elephants

Says actions are necessary, do no harm

By Nedra Pickler
Associated Press / March 4, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The head of the company that owns the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus acknowledged in federal court yesterday that all his elephant handlers strike the animals with metal-tipped prods, but he said it is necessary to keep the huge animals under control and doesn't harm them.

Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment, said the circus probably couldn't have elephants without the prods - called bull hooks - and chains that are at the center of a trial in US District Court. He said the prods and restraints are needed to protect the safety of his staff and the public.

Animal rights groups are suing Feld Entertainment, saying the use of those instruments harms the company's 54 Asian elephants, an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act. The trial, being heard by US District Judge Emmet Sullivan without a jury, has been going on for a month and is expected to last a couple more weeks.

The defense opened its case yesterday with Feld taking the stand. The executive said he has no tolerance for mistreatment of circus animals, and employees are trained on proper policies and encouraged to report abuse. But under cross examination, he said the company has no policy to make sure he is personally aware of abuse investigations.

He said he has seen handlers hit elephants under the chin, behind the ears, or on the legs with a bull hook - which resembles a thick fireplace poker with a curved metal hook - describing it as a standard practice to "correct" or "guide" the animals. "I don't view what I've seen as abuse," he said.

He said a handler was verbally reprimanded in 1994 for using a "hot shot," or electric prod, on an elephant, but not fired because experienced elephant handlers are hard to find and he didn't do it again. He also said the hot shot doesn't harm elephants, and is appropriately used to protect public safety or break up fights between the animals.

The animal rights groups, including the Animal Welfare Institute, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Fund for Animals, are suing to stop Ringling Bros. from using elephants in their shows.

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