You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More TV

  • First Look at SAG Awards' Cuban

    First Look at SAG Awards' Cuban-Inspired After-Party (EXCLUSIVE)

    Celebrities at this year’s SAG Awards won’t have to go far for some tropical fun. Sunday’s annual post-show gala, hosted by People magazine for the 23rd year, is set to feature a Cuban-themed party space adjacent to the Shrine Auditorium. “We’re kind of going back to more of a thematic element. I have some close [...]

  • Young Tony Soprano in 'Sopranos' Movie:

    James Gandolfini's Son Michael Gandolfini Cast as Tony Soprano in 'Sopranos' Movie

    Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini, will play the young Tony Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the  prequel movie to the television series “The Sopranos.” “It’s a profound honor to continue my dad’s legacy while stepping into the shoes of a young Tony Soprano,” Gandolfini said. “I’m thrilled that I am [...]

  • Ray Romano

    TV Roundup: Netflix Releases First Trailer For New Ray Romano Stand Up Special (Watch)

    In today’s TV News Roundup, Netflix teases new stand up special “Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner.” FIRST LOOKS Ray Romano returns for his first stand up comedy special in 23 years with “Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner.” Doing two shows in one night in Manhattan, Romano riffs on friends, marriage, and [...]

  • Kevin BarnettFOX 'Rel' TV show panel,

    Comedian Kevin Barnett Dies in Mexico at 32

    Kevin Barnett, the comedian behind Fox comedy series “Rel,” has died while on vacation in Mexico of unknown causes. He was 32. Barnett’s New York City-based comedy career was just taking off at the time of his death, having recently executive produced and co-created Fox TV series “Rel” alongside comedians Lil Rel Howery and Josh [...]

  • Can't We Talk About Something More

    Roz Chast Memoir ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’ to Be Adapted Into TV Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Famed New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast is taking her sardonic wit to a television screen near you. Her best-selling graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is being adapted into a half-hour television series by Shivani Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures and Ken Kwapis’ In Cahoots, Variety has learned. Emmy-winning writer Sheila R. Lawrence (“The [...]

  • Jesse Redniss Variety Entertainment & Technology

    WarnerMedia Debuts Content Innovation Lab Fueled by AT&T Tech

    WarnerMedia is launching an incubator meant to “combine emerging technologies with content from across its operating units to create new and innovative consumer experiences and businesses,” the company announced Tuesday. Led by Jesse Redniss, Turner’s executive VP of data strategy and product innovation, the WarnerMedia Innovation Lab is looking to integrate its intellectual property and talent [...]

  • Ilha de Ferro - Dante (

    NATPE: 5 Takes on Brazil’s Globo and Its 2019 Lineup

    MIAMI  — In hallowed tradition, Brazilian TV giant Globo unveiled its NATPE line-up on the first day of the Miami trade fair. With scripted and non-scripted promos playing to a thundering soundtrack Jerry Bruckheimer would have been proud of, this was, as ever for Globo, a polished and powerful presentation. But it also said much [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content