Ringling Bros. Derides HBO Elephants Doc as ‘One-Sided’

Ringling Bros. Derides HBO Elephants Doc

Circus rep criticizes decision to not include response; cabler sez doc covers 'wide range' of issues

The Greatest Show on Earth has a beef with the HBO documentary “An Apology to Elephants,” accusing the producers of setting out to do a “one-sided” hit piece.

In my review I wondered why there was no comment presented from the circuses that are so strongly indicted in the 40-minute film, which premieres April 22. A call to Feld Inc., the parent of Ringling Bros., found them fuming over having been contacted by the producer-director, Amy Schatz, and then left out of the project.

Feld spokesman Stephen Payne produced two correspondence from Schatz. In the first, she wrote, “We have read about both your Center for Conservation and the complaints regarding performing elephants and elephants in zoos. To have a full range of voices on the subject of elephants, we’d welcome the chance to talk with you.”

In the second – after Ringling Bros. had offered to discuss its support of the Conservation Center and explain its practices – she responded that after further internal consideration, “the Conservation Center isn’t one HBO wants us to cover in the film.”

“It’s unfortunate that they chose to make a documentary that represents only one side of the issue,” Payne said, suggesting the producers “clearly have an anti-circus political agenda.”

Asked why no spokespeople for circuses were included, HBO issued a statement saying the documentary “explores a wide range of issues surrounding elephants in captivity and in the wild. When we start our productions, our process is to cast a wide net and contact a wide range of people and organizations. Unfortunately not all can be included in the final film.”

To be fair, HBO documentaries are often strong advocacy pieces, with a sharply defined point of view, in much the way an op-ed column in a newspaper is. “An Apology to Elephants” also focuses on issues beyond the circus, including poaching and the dwindling elephant population.

Still, it does raises questions about fairness to approach a subject as clearly implicated as Ringling Bros. is in this context and then consciously decide not to provide them an opportunity to respond.

Moreover, one can argue that posing such questions on camera – subjecting circus reps to an old-style “60 Minutes” grilling, as it were – would likely make the material resonate even more.

Toward that end, I asked Payne about the three most pressing questions raised by the documentary: The use of bullhooks by trainers to instill fear in the animals; the confined conditions in which they live and travel; and the unnatural aspects of teaching (or coercing) elephants to perform “tricks” that are antithetical to their behavior.

According to Payne, Ringling Bros. prefers referring to bullhooks as “guides,” and maintains elephants are trained using a repetition-and-reward system relying primarily on verbal cues, not fear and coercion. He also stated the animals travel in custom-designed train cars and are given ample room at every stop.

Finally, Payne disputed the assertion made in the film that elephants never engage in circus behaviors – like standing on their hind legs – in the wild.

There’s certainly room to be skeptical about those contentions, and some of the video presented in the film from circuses (not identified as Ringling Bros., it should be noted)  is both sickening and disturbing. While Ringling Bros. has been aggressive in defending itself against such charges publicly and through the courts, the controversy over circuses – which includes several cities seeking to ban performances featuring elephants, among them Los Angeles – will no doubt continue.

In the broad strokes, credit HBO with bringing attention to the issue. Nevertheless, by opting not to include a response from circus representatives, HBO has made its own editorial practices, and not just those of the circus, part of the story.

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  1. Mary says:

    You can’t deny the footage of baby elephants and adult elephants getting beat.

  2. MIck says:

    Are people insane. The documentary shows cruel and barbaric ways to train this spectacular creatures. Are we to believe that at no point in Ringling Brothers history they participated in such acts. I love animals and for a long time just did not want to believe that these things were happening, but they are so open your f..ing eyes. When an animal kills a trainer, whether it be a whale or an elephant we ask ourselves why. They are wild creatures we are confining for our own enjoyment.They are animals not to be contained. It is one thing if people are trying preserve these creatures from poachers in reserves and proper functioning zoos, but the traveling circus is just that traveling. Ask yourself this question. If it is possible for an elephant to remember another elephant after being separated for decades why are we not doing more to save them. It is said that in the united states of America this is being tolerated. I am sickened by it.

    • Gary Payne says:

      To “Mick”: The so called documentary shows what the folks who paid for it wanted it to show. Hollywood is wonderful isn’t it? The “wild creatures” you refer to were not born in the wild…very few animals remain that came from the “wild”. We SHOULD do more to save them, and I am an eyewitness to the gigantic efforts to save the Asian elephant (and other animals) by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and a couple of other circus/circus related organizations and in cooperation with responsible zoological programs. Fear not! Circus animals are loved and well cared for.

  3. Corey Hyde says:

    There havebeen lots of witnesses and evidence with pictures that the elephants as well as the other animals are physically and mentally abused. Does the animal get the choice to be ripped out if their natural habitat as well as for the most part torn away from their families. I’ve seen documentation of baby elephants being taken away from their mothers at a young age. Then they, the circus handlers, start harming them right away. Because we must remember elephants don’t forget:; I’m sure if these circus performed by these animals were given a choice;They would definitely say “no thanks”.
    Humans have enough enjoyment in our lives without having to engage animals for so called entertainment. We should just have circuses like cirque de soleil. Enough is enough. Animals belong in the wild with their wild parts. People, come On, We are not living in the dark ages any more. Have some compassion.

    • Gary Payne says:

      To Corey Hyde: The vast majority of circus elephants today were not “ripped out of their natural habitat…” as you have been led to believe. I have never known a young elephant to be removed from his/her mother unless the mom was a threat to the baby. I have also never known a single circus handler to “start harming them right away” as you mention. That makes no reasonable or logical sense. Speaking of compassion, the circus people I know have far more compassion than the haters commenting herein. Lots of people are encouraged to support programs supportive of elephant conservation after learning about them at the circus…. I respect your opinion Corey, but insist that you respect that of others.

  4. Ron says:

    I spent 3 years touring with Ringling Brothers Circus. I rode an elephant twice a day, three times on Saturday. They were well fed, looked after by vets constantly, and a joy to be around. They were mostly bottle fed from birth and they have been domesticated for the last 2,000 years. If you have not lived with an elephant in the circus 24/7 350 days a year like I have then shut up. You are projecting your own pitiful life on that of a working animal. We were in better shape than our contemporaries. It was hard work yes… but nobody was going to poach us in the wild. Gunther Gebel Williams was a loving trainer and he he would never hurt one of his charges. You can ignore me if you like, please enjoy your walk over a cliff.

    • Greta Farnsworth says:

      How can you justify hauling around elephants for months at a time in railroad cars, chaining them to asphalt for up to 19 hrs per day, forcing elephants to stand on their heads, and stand on tiny pedestals? And worst of all, 2 year old babies are taken away from their mothers and “broken” (to use the exact words of a trainer) into submission and fear. Did you not see the vet who talked about the screams of these babies while they were being abused? When you say “We were in better shape than our contempories” are you refering to yourself as understanding what goes on in an elephants mind? If you are, you would be mistaken. Half the time humans don’t know what’s going on in their own minds. Let alone that of another species.

  5. horse lover says:

    Next these same animal activist will come after the bit in a horses mouth and your right to own a pet. Wake up people. You keep following this sort of propaganda and soon they will be coming for your dogs and cats. Their grand agenda is to stop all animal human interaction folks! That means say bye bye to your dogs and cats!

    • Greta Farnsworth says:

      Try to stay on topic. The debate is not about horses, dogs or cats. You are representing yourself as an “extremist” just as you accuse others. This conversation is about elephants at Ringling and nothing else. If you are not informed of this issue than move on to another. Your opinions are not facts. Others comments include facts about Ringling and Kenneth Feld

  6. AliceWisdom says:

    If HBO truly likes to cast a “wide net” on sources and perspectives then it is very telling that everyone they chose has the exact same radical agenda. Clearly the mere presence of an opposing view (that of the circuses and zoos who interact with elephants) is threatening enough to the animal rights argument to keep it out of the documentary. As with all extremism, the truth is the most threatening and that is why HBO chose not to let the circus respond. The mutual respect, trust and love that elephants have with their trainers one of the most special connections one can have. Instead HBO chose to make false accusations and assertions without backing them up or even bothering to vet the claims–even the questions in this article have animal rights bias built-in (for example asking about “the unnatural aspects of tricks that are antithetical to their behavior” instead of asking if the elephants’ tricks are based in natural behaviors). The bias is built in and not researched. This documentary is not about what’s best for elephants, it’s about raising money for animal rights extremists groups who will turn around and NOT spend that money on actual elephants.

    • Greta Farnsworth says:

      Did you not see the part of the documentary about the Oakland Zoo and why they do not interact with elephants without a barrier? One of their trainers was killed by interacting with one. I sure don’t understand how you can say that Tom Ridley, Pat Derby and many others do not know the truth. Did you know a Ringling spokesman actually said out loud that elephants “ride comfortably in railcars?” How could a human being possibly know that? Are you not aware of the 39 yr old Ringling elephant who collasped in Anaheim while being loaded onto a train. This tragic event was filmed. How is that not the Truth? Are you the same Alice who advocates horse slaughter? And No, No elephants “natural behavior” is not to stand on their heads or stand on a tiny pedestal. A Ringling elephant fell from a pedestal and was so injured she has to be put to sleep. You are stating your “opinion” and do not have facts as others who have commented here. No one is interested in your opinion!

  7. Anthony Kane says:

    Hey Ned you’ve supported animal abuse for 50 years. How disgusting. You think an elephant wants to do tricks. Are you high!!! It just shows the true ignorance of the human race. Your supposed to fight for the weak and the ones who can’t protect themselves. I would love to tie you up for 19 hrs a day and then beat you with a stick to do tricks. Just like humans in their rightful habitat which is regular free world you have that option to do what you want. You take that away from an animal an elephant. The elephant was around way before we were and were raised and lived by there choice in the wild untouched. Just like sea world. You think fish or whales or penguins want to be stuck in captivity. Wake the hell up. You put shamoo the killer whale in a tank the size of a tiny closet instead of their natural habitat which is the ocean. No restrictions. I consider you NED as a person who abused animals for 50 years and support it. You should be ashamed. What happened to you to turn into such a viscous stupid human bieng. We’re you beat as a child from your parents. We’re you the outsider in school and got bullied. Are you soft with soft skin and wang respect but you take it out on innocent animals that can’t fight for themselves. The weak and inocent are the ones your supposed to fight for.. Wake up people. DO NOT SUPPORT zoos or circuses or buy ivory PLEASE

  8. Ned Kronberg says:

    in over 50 years of being around circus’s and zoos I have yet to see one mis treat a animal and in most cases their animals have had better care than their employees
    I think its time that these people that defacing the domistacted animals should look harder at the sitration of the pochers that are deminishing these herds of animlas or is that their ultimite goal of the elimanaion of all animals?

    • Greta Farnsworth says:

      “Elephants have better care than their employees?” You are forgetting about the people who have been killed by elephants and the elephants who have been killed as a result. If I were you I would thank God that I am still alive in all those 50 yrs. Your comment is “gibberish” Try spell check next time. Obviously, it doesn’t take much intelligence to work with circus’ & zoos!

  9. Gary Payne says:

    Documentary? That’s a laugh. If this were a news piece or a documentary piece it would have included the other side of the story. What this is: A 40 minute INFOMERCIAL! How much was paid for this? It looks to me like the “abusive footage” is a compilation of all the so called “evidence” rejected by the courts. My question is: If it’s not admissible as evidence of the crime of animal abuse, then why would a respectable producer accept it for television? I’m fairly certain of the answer to that question. Don’t be mis-led by the animal rights fund raising business. Most circus animals are loved and well cared for. Want to help animals? Support your local shelter, NOT the animal rights fund raising scams. Enjoy animals? Want to support those that believe in conservation? See you at the circus, where animals are loved and well cared for, and conservation is increasingly a priority.

    • Greta Farnsworth says:

      I mispoke. Tom Ridley was a witness for the plantiffs, not the defense. My bad!

    • Greta Farnsworth says:

      The reason the lawsuit was lost was not because the videos & pics were inadmissable, because they were admitted as evidence. It was because Tom Ridley as a witness for the defense was discredited. 2 year old elephants who are ripped away from their mothers are NOT “loved and well cared for!” There are many animal advocacy groups who do contribute to conservation: ie, the World Wildlife Fund and many accredited zoos who manage conservation of many dwindling species. You are forgetting that we must be good conservators of the entire planet, not just this country! Try to expand your vision. Did you know that India, where many elephants are in captivity, do not allow circus elephants?

      • Gary Payne says:

        Really Greta? “Tom Ridley” (sic) You don’t even know his name…. “Discredited”? Tom Rider (that’s his name) accepted payment for his lies, from the folks YOU support.

  10. Greta Farnsworth says:

    Ringling is not going to be able to “spin” the cruel, inhumane treatment of elephants. There is no “other side” What about the elephant who collasped in Anaheim while being loading into a railcar? What about the elephant who was shot in Tupelo, Miss? What about the elephant who drowned in a lake at their Florida facility with a handler mere feet away? What about the elephant who fell off a pedestal and was so injured, she was euthinized? What about chaining elephants to asphalt for 20 hrs a day? What about the fact that no water can be accomodated while they travel in rail cars? They have to stop the trains to give them water. What about the video of “breaking” a two yr old elephant with legs tied and sticking a Bullhook in the anus? What about the thugs Kenneth Feld hired to intimidate Pat Derby?

    I’d like to see Ringling explain all that!

  11. Paulette says:

    I commend HBO, and Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner in particular as executive producers, for bringing to light the ‘dark side’ of elephant life in ALL aspects. For years I have studied animal treatment in circuses and zoos. When I first saw undercover footage and began researching by extensive reading including court documents, I’m going to be honest with you – I couldn’t sleep for a couple of weeks, these images floating in my mind and breaking my heart.

    Ringling reps have been on TV numerous times, always dismissive, always spinning tales of their center for animal conversation which NO footage except one carefully staged vignette shown on network TV. Any undercover video shown clearly identifying Ringling is always described in effect by Ringling as “oh…that’s OLD footage, we don’t do that anymore, we’ve learned…” Yet, recent footage continues to surface. Former animal handlers/trainers who have dared to come forth and produce evidence have always been somehow ‘discredited’ by clever Ringling lawyers. Oh, it’s not just Ringling – it’s all circuses who use animals, as well as “leasing” companies such as the horrifically notoriously cruel “Have Trunk Will Travel.” Don’t take my word for it – watch the footage online.

    Ringling has also been consistent in their quest to discredit the Performing Animal Welfare Society and other trusted, similar sanctuaries, as basically “animals rights activists out to get your money” – I’m paraphrasing but they’ve said this over and over.

    Look at the tears in Pat Derby’s eyes, an unselfish individual who chose to devote her life to work as hard as any human being could to make things a little nicer and kinder for animals. What a cruel twist of fate that she did not live long enough to see this documentary released. I wept while watching this and send my deepest respect and thanks to ALL involved in this riveting, thoughtful, educational and sensitive production.

  12. How can there be an award system when you never see the elephants being rewarded, but you always see Ringling employees with bullhooks. And why would they need bullhooks if they use verbal commands and rewards? You don’t see dog trainers using bullhooks with a dog, do you?

    How about the elephants being chained up over 14 hours, or more, at the ‘conservation’ center. Sometimes they’re chained for over a day on the train trips. Then there’s the fact that ‘conservation’ implies returning elephants to the wild, but that’s not Ringling’s intention. Because of laws, they can no longer go to the wild to get elephants, so they have to raise their own. Heck, they don’t even work with AZA (Associations of Zoos and Aquariums) and their elephant breeding program.

    A bullhook is a ‘guide’. The elephants aren’t struck, they are ‘touched’. They aren’t punished, they’re ‘corrected’.

    And it’s not cruelty, it’s entertainment.

    During the ASPCA et al vs. Feld trial a few years back, all of the Ringling employees called hitting the elephant with the bullhook, ‘touching’. When questioned on this, Feld, himself, claimed that hitting, striking, touching are all the same, and it’s only semantics.

    Well, not to an elephant.

  13. Pat Cuviello says:

    Ringling gets plenty of one-sided news coverage. If Ringling doesn’t like one-sided news coverage they should complain to all the media outlets that only cover them but not the animals’ side. When Ringling starts doing this I will then believe they are only interested in fairness. However, if they were interested in fairness they wouldn’t be forcing unwilling animals to perform silly, unnatural and often painful circus tricks for the financial benefit of Ken Feld, Ringling’s owner.

  14. Lauren Wood says:

    There IS no other side. The circus for an elephant is an abusive, torturous “life” for these magnificent, intelligent and emotional beings.

  15. Julia says:

    The title of the film is “An Apology to Elephants”. Yet Ringling and other circuses offer elephants no apology. Perhaps that is why they were not included. Ringling has far more power than elephants or their advocates; their voice is usually the loudest. Kudos to HBO for shifting the balance of power for 40 short minutes.

  16. HBO showed mild footage of abuse. If you want to see what Ringling is really hiding look at this undercover video taken over the course of 6 months in 2009. The elephants are hit in the face and other areas of their body before each show to keep them in check and let them know who is boss. The sounds they make while being hit is haunting.

    • Gary Payne says:

      So why has the so called “undercover video” not been used to prove abuse in a court of law? Could it be that it is inadmissable? Why would we here in this forum accept such video? I have another word for your “undercover video” – PROPAGANDA!

      • Greta Farnsworth says:

        If you were informed about this issue, you would know that Ringling was, in fact, sued for elephant abuse. Tom Riddley was a whistle-blower against Ringling. Unfortunately, Ringling prevailed not because the abuse was not proved in a court of law, but because Ringlings high priced attorneys who went to Harvard and also defended oil companies against enviromental damages, discredited Tom Ridley as a witness. The Truth and Facts proved that Ringling has been systematically abusing elephants for the past 100 yrs. Obviously, this lawsuit defeat has galvinized the debate against Ringling. No amount of “spin” can discredit the facts. One day all elephants at Ringling will be placed into santuaries. Of that, I am certain! If you are not informed, you should not be making comments in this forum. Try Facebook instead. This is for grown-ups!

  17. If this is one sided it is on the side of the truth! Ringling Bros has been lying to the public for years about how they train and torture their elephants. The bullhook is not a “guide” it is a instrument of pain. The els only have to see the bullhook to instill fear and remind them of the beating they will get if they don’t do as told. The circuses make millions of dollars off the backs of these animals and have all the reason in the world to lie to the public about how they train and care for these animals. If people knew the abuse and suffering these animals endure they would not go to the show. RB HAS to lie, HBO has no reason to lie. They made a film about elephants and how they suffer in captivity. Ringling was represented in the film-we got to see their elephants walking down a highway in NJ to the arena in Newark. What is wrong with that picture? They do not belong walking down city streets.
    The people in this film are the world’s experts on elephant behavior. They have been working with and studying elephants for over 40 years. I believe what they have to say over Ringling Bros and their money making lies.

  18. Good think HBO didn’t include Ringling’s b.s. – why include lies to a documentary if you can avoid it?

  19. LoveEles says:

    Methinks Ringling doth protest too much. We’ve seen the horrible video of elephant torture for years, and we see the condition of the elephants in Ringling’s care. There is nothing Ringling can say that makes it better for the elephants. I sincerely hope we see all current circus elephants in a true sanctuary before the end of my life. It’s what they deserve after being beaten and tortured their whole lives with Ringling and other circuses.

  20. Calling a bull hook a GUIDE means exactly what? Is is it no longer a bull hook? Get real. And yes animals sit on their hind parts but are they performing acrobatics? Are they dancing and etc? This is one argument that zoo folk can’t win… period.

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