While treatment of the elephants appears OK on stage, backstage video tells a different story.
Talk about an elephantine accusation. The world-renowned Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is in hot water with animal-rights activists – again – after new undercover tapes show trainers beating their pachyderms before they go on stage.
The video, captured by a PETA worker who posed as a stagehand for six months, has sparked new allegations of animal-rights violations against the circus and provided fodder for the campaign against the spectacle known as "The Greatest Show on Earth." A spokesman for the circus, however, called the tapes the work "of an animal rights extremist group."
The tapes show the giant animals wearing head-dresses, packed together as handlers strike them with bull hooks over their face, ears and bodies. The harsh, loud smacks of the whips are heard in the background.
At one point, a handler wearing a black costume stalks up to one of the elephants and randomly smacks it in the head with his baton – apparently for no reason at all.
The surveillance video captures 4.5 heart-wrenching minutes of elephants being whipped, sometimes curling their trunks, opening their mouths and making noises in protest. Workers sink bull hooks – sharp, fireplace poker-like tools -- into the elephants' sensitive skin and yank hard as the animals trumpet in pain.
Forced to perform night after night, one of the elephants in the video – 25-year-old Tonka -- frequently sways back and forth, bobs her head and kicks her right foot – all behaviors indicative of severe psychological stress, according to PETA. And the verbal abuse appears to be as bad as the physical abuse.
A trainer is overheard cursing at the behemoths, saying "F*** you, fat ass. Back up."
PETA crafted the covert op to record what the group calls flagrant abuse of the elephants as they're herded from cages to the ring. The undercover worker got a job with the circus and traveled with it across seven states. He shot video between January and June at various venues, including Madison Square Garden, reports the Daily News.
"We've known for years that backstage beatings occur," Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's vice president for cruelty investigations, told the News. "But what will strike the audience is that these elephants can't do anything right as far as these workers go. This sort of behavior is deeply embedded."
Elephants aren't the only animals abused by circus handlers in the video. The tape also shows tigers being whipped and smacked around in rehearsals.
Ringling Bros. officials said they didn't know about the existence of the video and couldn't comment on it, but said their animals are treated properly, the News reported.
"PETA is an animal rights extremist group," Steve Payne, spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., told the News. "We are very proud of our animal care ... "We have 139 years of experience of working with Asian elephants."
This isn't the first time PETA has captured Ringling's animal abuse on tape. The organization has recorded other videos of workers beating animals – and some handlers have even spoken out against the company's abusive practices. A judge is expected to rule as early as this summer on whether Ringling's use of steel-barbed bullhooks, electric prods and shackles on the elephants violates federal law, PETA says.
In light of the most recent video, PETA filed a formal complaint Tuesday with the Agriculture Department under the Animal Welfare Act, according to the News. The group also plans to file complaints today in seven states where the circus performed, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island.