Ringling Bros. Circus: Friends in High Places

With two wars going on, the economy still faltering, and the government on the brink of shutting down, why is Congress protecting Ringling Bros. Circus?
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With two wars going on, the economy still faltering, and the government on the brink of shutting down, why is Congress protecting Ringling Bros. Circus?

One would think that exclusively serious issues would command Congress' attention, but according to sources on Capitol Hill, the staff of the House Committee on Agriculture, at the urging of Ringling lobbyist Brent Gattis of the firm Olsson Frank Weeda, demanded that representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) justify an unannounced inspection in Chicago last November -- even though circus employees had illegally refused to allow inspectors in for over an hour. The inspection resulted in citations against the circus for violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), one of which was Ringling's failure to provide veterinary care to a young elephant named Sara, who is suffering from chronic lameness.

Conveniently ignoring that unannounced inspections are required by the AWA and that the USDA has open investigations into Ringling, committee staff reportedly criticized USDA representatives, claiming that they had abused their authority; they implied that the inspectors were collaborating with animal protection groups and grilled them about the inspectors' findings.

The USDA is charged with protecting animals who are used in entertainment, so surely the House Committee on Agriculture has some awareness of Ringling's long history of failing to adhere to federal law and putting animals at risk.

After all, the president's own namesake, baby elephant Barack, was not even 1 year old when he was already on the road and making public appearances, and he is now suffering from his second bout of the painful and often deadly elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.

More than two dozen elephants have died while in Ringling's care, including four babies: Eight-month-old Riccardo was euthanized after he shattered both his hind legs when he fell from a circus pedestal. Benjamin fled his bullhook-wielding trainer and drowned in a pond. Kenny died after being put on stage three times in a day even while he was showing signs of serious illness. Ringling made no announcement when 11-day-old Bertha died, and the cause of her death is unknown.

Photographic evidence provided by a longtime Ringling trainer shows baby elephants who are tied down by all four legs, threatened with bullhooks (sharp, metal-tipped devices that resemble fireplace pokers) and shocked with electric prods to break their spirit and make them perform tricks.

Recent reports from elephant experts confirm Sara's lameness as well as that of another elephant named Nicole, who also suffers from arthritis. PETA's undercover video footage reveals that Ringling handlers routinely use bullhooks to painfully hook elephants in order to keep them moving, despite the pain in their joints.

In the last decade, the circus has been written up for numerous serious violations, including improper handling of dangerous animals; causing trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and unnecessary discomfort to two elephants who sustained injuries when they ran amok during a performance; endangering tigers who were nearly baked alive in a boxcar because of poor maintenance of their enclosures; and failing to test elephants for tuberculosis.

Many have not forgotten the influence-peddling scandal that resulted in the conviction of two White House officials and nine other lobbyists and Congressional aides, and that ended the careers of Rep. Bob Ney and former House Majority Leader Tom Delay. Or the poster child for abuse of power and corruption, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was accused of influence-peddling and was arrested, impeached, and removed from office.

Connections count in D.C., but exerting pressure or exploiting relationships with people in authority to obtain preferential treatment for another is still considered backdoor dealing. The Committee's meddling in the Ringling inspection surely wouldn't pass the Obama administration's anti-corruption smell test.

The protection that the AWA affords animals is already the bare minimum, so it's outrageous for the House Committee on Agriculture to undermine the USDA's efforts to fulfill its inspection and enforcement responsibilities by capitulating to Ringling's demands. It is the committee's responsibility to support the USDA's statutory and regulatory responsibilities -- however weak they may be -- not to cave in to political pressure.

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