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Elephant abuse trial starts for Ringling trainer

A humane society takes on the Greatest Show in a case involving the son of Gunther Gebel-Williams.

©Los Angeles Times
December 18, 2001

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Asia, the circus elephant, has wowed audiences around the nation with her leg lifts, ring prancing and ear-flapping headstands. But is she a willing performer, or a victim of animal abuse at the hands of one of the circus world's leading trainers?

That question will be put to Santa Clara County jurors this week at a criminal trial that activists hope will blow the big top off the Greatest Show on Earth and its animal treatment practices.

Animal activists have long accused Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus of using brutal training methods on its performing animals. The circus once paid $20,000 to settle elephant abuse allegations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- administrators of the federal Animal Welfare Act -- after a sick pachyderm performed before it could be examined by a veterinarian. The elephant later died.

But Ringling officials say the San Jose, Calif., case marks the first time any of their performers has been prosecuted criminally for elephant abuse, and it comes two years after another attempt by the Humane Society of Santa Clara County to bring charges against the circus. In that case, investigators allegedly found puncture wounds on seven elephants. But prosecutors declined to file charges citing insufficient evidence.

At center ring this time is one of Ringling Bros. human star attractions, Mark Oliver Gebel, the 31-year-old son of legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, a marquee performer for two decades before his death in July.

Trading his flamboyant circus outfit for a black business suit, the tall, blond-haired trainer sat next to his mother in the front row of the crowded courtroom Monday and listened impassively as lawyers argued pretrial motions.

Gebel, prosecutors allege, gouged at Asia's hide with a metal hook before a show here last summer, leaving a nickel-sized bloody spot on her left front leg.

If found guilty of the misdemeanor elephant abuse count, Williams could face a six-month jail term and a $1,000 fine.

But animal activists say the real blow would be to Ringling Bros.' worldwide reputation.

"This case is important because the public gets to learn how the animals are really treated, and the public gets to vote where they spend their dollars," said Deniz Bolbol, a spokesperson for Citizens for Cruelty-free Circuses, a San Francisco Bay Area-based animal activist organization.

Circus officials accuse prosecutors of filing the case under pressure from animal activists. They say Gebel has spent a lifetime caring for animals and would not harm Asia, a 4-ton elephant he has trained for 12 years.

"(Gebel) is an outstanding caretaker and he works for an organization that loves the animals," said Catherine Ort-Mabry, a spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. "He knows what they need to thrive, and they do thrive under his care."

As a long time target of activists who protest whenever the circus rolls into town, Ringling Bros. has countered various mistreatment accusations with a public relations campaign touting its conservation efforts and animal care facilities.

The circus calls itself a leader in the care of elephants. The animals -- among them tigers, horses, and zebras -- are "pampered" performers who are watched over by veterinarians 24 hours a day.

All in all, the circus says, its animals live healthier, safer and longer lives than their wildlife brethren.

But critics -- among them former employees of the circus -- contend that abuses are systematic, and that training methods include brutal beatings with clubs, and long periods without food.

Since 1990, the circus has been investigated 14 times by the Department of Agriculture for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

The Humane Society of Santa Clara County is viewed as the most aggressive organization in a state considered among the most progressive enforcers of animal welfare laws. California remains the only state in the country that prohibits the use of tools to discipline or punish elephants.

"These are not law enforcement people," said Jim McMannis, Gebel's lawyer. "This is a private organization that has an agenda and the power to bring someone before the court."

The incident involving Asia occurred in August as Gebel was leading a line of elephants into San Jose's Compaq Arena for the grand finale. With numerous witnesses watching, Gebel allegedly yelled and lunged at the elephants, urging them to move faster.

Asia, who had bolted forward, was later found to have a bloody spot on her left front leg. Authorities believe Gebel punctured Asia's hide with an ankus, a hooked metal stick that resembles a fireplace poker. At the trial, which is expected to last about five days, evidence will include photographs of the alleged wound and at least six witnesses.

McMannis, scoffed at the charge, saying the alleged injury to the giant elephant was superficial. He compared it to the blood-test blotch that result from laboratory tests on people. Such a wound, he said, could not constitute punishment.

"We're talking about an 8,000-pound elephant that stands 8-feet tall," said McMannis. "The (alleged) wound is the size of a pinprick."

Officials say trainers use the ankus, or bull hook, to guide the elephants and that the instrument does not inflict pain. McMannis said that Asia's red mark disappeared after being washed and that a veterinarian found no signs of injury.

Asia continues to perform, said officials. They say she is one of the most "sweet-natured" elephants in the circus, so friendly that she is one of the animals that children get to touch before the circus.

But activists believe she only performs to escape punishment.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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