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

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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