The Elephant in the Room

Is “The Greatest Show on Earth” spreading one of the world’s most dangerous diseases?

If Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has not already come to your hometown this summer, it will, because “The Greatest Show on Earth” never stops – no matter the obstacles.

The obstacles include a number of lawsuits against Kenneth Feld and his company, Feld Entertainment, owner of the circus and other touring shows, including Disney on Ice operations. Three weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that a case against the circus charging animal cruelty, filed by the ASPCA and other animal welfare groups, could go forward.

Documents discovered in the course of that lawsuit and others have revealed a long history of hard conditions for elephants in the circus. Feld is accused of abusing his endangered Asian elephants by allowing employees to beat them, chain them for long periods of time, and wound them with bullhooks. The circus is also accused of forcibly removing baby elephants from their mothers before they are weaned and breaking baby elephants with force to make them submissive.

But the real elephant in the room, as revealed by court documents, is the widespread infection of circus elephants with mycobacterium – tuberculosis. This is the same type of tuberculosis carried by and spread by humans.

The documents indicate that some of Ringling’s endangered Asian elephants struggle with multiple drug-resistant strains of M-tuberculosis, and experts say there’s no way to tell if they have been cured after they have been infected. That brings potential danger to everyone in contact with them.

According to Ringling Bros. documents obtained during the course of this investigation, virtually all of the Ringling Bros. endangered Asian elephants may have been exposed to tuberculosis. Dozens of them were given at least one of the drugs used to treat M-tuberculosis in Asian elephants. The drugs given to Asian elephants are the same drugs used to threat humans. According to emails written by Ringling Bros. veterinarians, several of the elephants could not tolerate the medication orbecame drug-resistant(Note: Please refer to the links at the top of the article for the full .pdf files of these images.)

According to former high-level Ringling Bros. employees, during the last ten years many of the TB-positive and TB-infected animals are the same ones performing for audiences in closed arenas.

One former Ringling Bros. employee said in an affidavit that, as the elephants enter and exit the arena, “They blow moisture from their trunks, hitting people in the face.” In a sworn deposition, former Ringling Bros. Chief Financial Officer Charles Smith said, “One person at the circus died of this type of TB. Children who rode the elephants at the circus were constantly exposed to it.” According to information released in discovery after a federal judge forced Ringling’s owner Kenneth Feld to either turn over health documents on the endangered Asian elephants or go to jail, it appears that twenty-six or more elephants have died in the last fifteen years. It is not clear how many of the dead had tuberculosis, but it is possible that many of them did.

Included in the documents provided in discovery were emails between circus veterinarians and top Ringling Bros. executives. The emails show that veterinarians were becoming alarmed over the numbers of elephants with active tuberculosis and herds that were dwindling due to elephants that had to be euthanized because the medications for treating M-TB were not working or the animal got sicker while being treated.

One email dated September 1999, written by Ringling’s lead veterinarian, William Lindsay, says that at one of the two Ringling facilities in Florida “… a total of 12 elephants are currently being treated for M-TB…. Two of these twelve are truly culture positive, Vance and Mala…. Birka, Josky, Sally, Minyak, Sid are also being treated as they are ‘in contact’ or have had positive DNA probe results … if any travel we should institute 2 drug therapy, rather than the single drug treatment currently in place.”

Dr. Lindsay goes on to write, “Alana, Romeo, Juliette, Kelly and Nichole are also being treated with 2 drugs…. I am concerned that as we continue to intensify testing at Williston [Ringling’s other facility], additional positives will occur.” Ringling’s top veterinarian recommends continuing to treat culture positive animals, “… if they will tolerate it.” If not, he says, they (Ringling) will have to consider euthanasia.

Of those listed in Dr. Lindsay’s above email, elephant Birka is confirmed dead and all the others underwent harsh drug treatment for M- tuberculosis. The surviving elephants are now performing in Europe or the United States or living at one of Ringling’s two facilities in Florida.

There are several alarming issues for epidemiologists: drug resistance, inability to diagnose if an elephant has been cured, and disease spreading to handlers who work with them and to the public who attend circus performances.

“Potential drug resistance is a distressing problem,” says world-renowned infectious disease epidemiologist Don Francis, credited with helping to discover HIV and the first director of the Centers for Disease Control AIDS Laboratory. Francis says, “When humans give tuberculosis to the Asian elephants, and the elephants become drug-resistant and go back out into the public, the elephants could then not only infect others with TB, but a drug-resistant form of TB.”

In June, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and other partners launched a $2.15 billion global response program to tackle drug-resistant TB. Concern is very high, and Congress recently held hearings pertaining to how a single passenger on a plane with drug-resistant tuberculosis could cross United States borders with such a virulent and devastating disease.

But what is the federal government doing to protect citizens from a circus with TB-exposed elephants traveling around the country?

“Not much,” says Katherine Meyer, the lead attorney representing the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Fund for Animals, and the Animal Welfare Institute in their lawsuit against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Meyer says, “It is egregious that the USDA – a federal agency charged with both protecting animals used in entertainment and making sure that the public is not exposed to contagious diseases carried by animals – consistently looks the other way when it comes to Ringling Bros.’ mistreatment of the elephants, and has been totally complicit in keeping the public in the dark about the fact that many of these animals have tested positive for TB.”

However, USDA documents also reveal that some tenacious investigators tried issuing citations, only to have many of them overruled by officials higher up.

One USDA document states that upon a surprise inspection, an infected elephant was found commingling with the other elephants, leading to potential “infection or re-infection of these elephants.” The USDA has cited Ringling Bros. at least two times for not supplying elephants with TB medication and other medical attention. Both citations were overturned.

In another document written by USDA Investigator Diane Ward, she requested a subpoena on testimony pertaining to TB-infected elephants and whether or not Ringling “[hired] a veterinarian or physician to test the elephants and cover up their TB findings.” USDA Investigator Frank Keyser wrote in a memo to Ward saying he believed there were taped conversations proving that Ringling had elephants in “both the Blue and Red units (at that time) that were infected with tuberculosis and being exhibited to the public.” Ward goes on to write that the tapes also indicate “experimental treatment” was being performed on the elephants that were clinically ill.

Why would Kenneth Feld and Ringling Bros. employees allegedly hide information about the health of the elephants, putting handlers and the public in danger? Could the show go on without the elephants? The Ringling Bros. website sports a banner headline declaring: “It wouldn’t be Ringling Bros. without our amazing animals!”

Feld, chief executive officer of a vast financial empire called Feld Entertainment, which includes up to at least 20 other corporations, said in court testimony that the circus alone produces “well over” $100 million of revenue a year. Ringling Bros. Circus is the largest performing-animal act in the world. But these days Kenneth Feld is embroiled in legal maneuvers in hopes of keeping the two cases against him at bay.

On August 23, the judge in the federal animal abuse case – after seven years – said Ringling would have to answer to these charges in court.

During the pretrial discovery period, numerous Ringling Bros. employees have testified about abusive conditions. One of Ringling Bros.’ own veterinarians, Allison Case, wrote in a 2004 memo that she was concerned about conditions surrounding the animals. She said the elephants were not given enough water so as to “minimize the amount they urinate.” She also found the water they did have was sometimes contaminated with soap or bleach.

Another Ringling employee, Heather Riggs, wrote in that same year that several elephants one morning “had visible abrasions and lacerations from the bull-hooks.” She went on to say the wounds had to be covered by “Wonder Dust,” a type of pancake make-up. Riggs said even the audience members were noticing the cuts and abrasions. But these charges pale in comparison to transporting TB-infected animals from one American city to the other.

If Feld Entertainment has told its employees about the dangers of spreading tuberculosis, the employees seem to be ignoring it. No one at the circus has reported seeing handlers wearing protective gear around the elephants.

After the USDA left from conducting an inspection in 2006, while in College Station, Texas, the circus held an open house and decided not to put up safety barriers between the public and the elephants. Former Ringling Brothers employee Bob Tom says he was told “not to worry about fences because the USDA was not coming back.”

In a second lawsuit, Kenneth Feld is accused of ruining the career of a reporter who tried to write a negative story about his family history. That case has lasted eight years, and the highest levels of Feld’s employees are testifying against him. In a sworn deposition, Feld’s former head of surveillance and security, Joel Kaplan, said as far back as 1993, “… we were told we had some real problems with some of the elephants.”

Kaplan goes on to say, “I was told in 1993 by … [a circus veterinarian] that about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings.” Kaplan also said under oath, “I was asked by Chuck [Smith – the chief financial officer], through Kenneth [Feld] to find a physician who would test the people on the circus to see if they had tuberculosis but who would destroy the records and not turn them in to the Centers for Disease Control.”

Tuberculosis in elephants is unheard of in the wild, but it is not exclusive to Ringling Bros. It appears to be spreading relentlessly through herds of Asian elephants exposed to human beings. Circus elephants are especially vulnerable.

In 1998, the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases published a study finding that not only can tuberculosis be passed from humans to elephants and then back to humans, but that approximately fifty percent of the handlers working with TB-positive elephants on one exotic animal farm in Illinois tested positive themselves. Tom Rider, a former circus employee and one of the plaintiffs in the abuse case against Ringling Bros., says he knows of at least five elephant handlers who tested positive before he left the circus in 1999. How many others tested positive for TB is a tightly controlled and potentially explosive piece of information that will most likely come out in court. Rider says he left the circus because there was horrible abuse toward the elephants. He also says the elephant handlers did trunk washings because they were told by their bosses that “elephants carry TB, not that they [the handlers] were in any danger.”

The trunk wash is the most commonly used procedure to get a TB diagnosis. A handler squirts saline solution up an elephant’s trunk; the elephant sneezes it out, and the effluent is collected and analyzed.

“A huge problem is the trunk washes used for diagnosing TB. They are not accurate,” says epidemiologist Don Francis. Since chest X-rays are not possible, the only way to positively diagnose TB in elephants is by dissecting the animals after they are dead. Ringling’s records show at least three of the elephants had consistently negative trunk washes, and were found to have tuberculosis upon necropsies.

“That’s why once an elephant has tested positive for TB, it should never be around people,” says the Los Angeles County Public Health chief veterinarian, Patrick Ryan, who has studied tuberculosis in elephants. “No one can tell when an elephant is cured. A treatment deadline is meaningless. The only way to know for sure if the elephant still has TB is to open them up and look at their lungs.”

In 2004, one of Ringling’s baby elephants, eight-month-old Ricardo, died after he “slipped while getting onto a tub” and broke both legs. The tub was presumably a training tub elephants are taught to stand or sit on during performances. Ringling announced that Ricardo had “a metabolic bone disorder.” But the baby’s necropsy shows he also had active tuberculosis.

Another baby, three-and-a-half-year-old Kenny, was about to perform in his third show of the day in January of 1998 when he began bleeding “profusely” from his rectum. According to a document from Feld Entertainment’s legal department, the veterinarian on call, Dr. Gary West, advised “not having Kenny perform the final show.” He did – and died an hour afterwards. His necropsy says a tissue sample was taken from his lung to test for TB, but the results have not been released.

Four baby elephants have died in the last few years under Ringling’s care. The babies are pictured prominently on circus brochures still handed out today promoting the circus. In fact, one brochure called “Babies, Babies, Babies” was printed after three of the babies prominently featured on the front page were already dead. All three died under controversial circumstances.

According to a spokesperson at the San Francisco Zoo who did not want to be identified, the first Ringling elephant carrying tuberculosis was found in 1993. Members of the San Francisco Zoo, Ringling Bros. veterinarians and the USDA attended a meeting to try to keep the disease from spreading. The USDA did not come up with TB testing and TB-related travel guidelines for performing elephants until five years later, in 1998. Still, enforcing guidelines is virtually impossible, according to plaintiff Tom Rider, because Ringling changes the elephants’ names and moves them around.

Despite several USDA reports indicating the agency has been lied to consistently by Ringling Bros. about sick elephants and whether they are on the road, the USDA allows the circus to go on, citing it only once, for violating the Animal Welfare Act by forcing three-and-a-half-year- old Kenny to participate in the third performance of the day when he was “bleeding profusely from his rectum….” Dr. Gary West, the veterinarian on call whose advice to “keep Kenny in the barn” was ignored, no longer works for Ringling Bros. West now is at Cornell University and would not return this writer’s phone calls. The USDA deputy administrator for animal care overrode the decision and withdrew the complaint. The USDA did not return phone calls despite several attempts to reach the agency.

Cases of tuberculosis are hard to trace in circus personnel because it is such a transitory business. In fact, two Ringling Bros. workers found out they were infected when they checked into a homeless shelter and were tested there. That creates an incipient problem. Circus workers with often-transient lifestyles work the circus and quit after a short time. They then move from town to town looking for work after their circus job is over. Or they go home to their families, living unaware they could be exposed and exposing others to tuberculosis.

Just last month, elephant experts from around the world meeting in Kathmandu said Nepal’s dwindling endangered Asian elephants are facing danger from tuberculosis, and in Mumbai, owners of Asian elephants without a valid certificate will be asked to remove the animals from the city, in part because of transmission of tuberculosis.

Here in the United States, scientist Don Francis says that “perhaps the circus should use informed consent – something saying the elephants may have TB, before you enter an arena and potentially expose your kids.” The public deserves a disclaimer warning those who want to be entertained by these exotic creatures so susceptible to tuberculosis to “enter at your own risk.”

Leslie Griffith has been a journalist in newspaper, radio and television for 25 years. One of her first assignments was in Moscow during the cold war. Griffith has earned two Edward R. Murrow awards; nine Emmys; thirty-seven Emmy nominations; the Prestigious Casey Medal for helping to stop exploitation of the nation’s children; seven Radio and Television News Directors Association awards; the 2006 People’s Choice Award for Best Female Anchor in Oakland Magazine, and the 2005 Associated Press Anchor of the Year. Griffith received commendation from The Associated Press for being the first to confirm on September 11, 2001, that the passengers on Flight 93 fought back. Griffith won the National Genesis Award for exposing abuse at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2005. Griffith is currently working on a book about corporate censorship of the media called “Shut-up and Read.” To reach Griffith, go to

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