Following a yearlong Mother Jones investigation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s elephant abuse, the USDA fined Ringling Bros. $270,000 for alleged Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations from June 2007 to August 2011. It’s the largest civil penalty against an exhibitor in the AWA’s four-decade history. For each violation after June 2008, the USDA can fine up to $10,000. That means the USDA is most likely charging Ringling Bros. with more than 27 violations.
In our November/December 2011 issue, Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Nelson uncovered the big top on the circus’s potential Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations: elephants whipped with bullhooks, trapped in train cars filled with their own feces, and chained in place for a good part of their lives. Now, that could change. As part of the USDA’s agreement with Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.’ corporate parent, the company will start yearly AWA compliance trainings beginning March 31, 2012 for all new employees who work with animals. That would be a stark contrast to their past cooperation with the USDA. In Nelson’s investigations, Ringling Bros. handlers were shown trying to postpone USDA investigations of their elephant training sites.
Feld Entertainment waived the opportunity for a hearing. In a press release, the company explained that “Feld Entertainment made a business decision to resolve its differences with the USDA.” The company claimed it was more important to focus on the future of their animal care “instead of engaging in costly and protracted litigation.” Feld still denies any wrongdoing or violation of USDA regulations, despite agreeing to pay the $270,000 USDA fine.
Here is the agreement, signed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving: