Reckoning at Ringling Bros.

03/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Leslie Griffith Journalist in newspaper, radio and television for 25 years

Kenneth Feld, the sole owner of Feld Entertainment and Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus did not appear in U.S Federal Court today. Buying his way out of trouble is a way of life for Ken Feld, but this time, he just may be trapped. These animal rights people are not clowning around! Many of us in the courtroom craned our curious necks to get a glimpse of him, but he ditched us, just like my big brother used to ditch me when a pretty willing date was waiting. Yep, Feld stayed true to his reclusive reputation and played the role he always plays: the illusive circus master who calls the moves behind the scenes.

Still, in true P.T Barnum fashion, the sleight of hand and manipulation of words got precision delivery on his behalf. In the first few hours of the trial, some of the most famous and expensive mouthpieces money can buy sang the praises of Ringling Bros. Circus and its treatment of endangered Asian elephants. An entourage of Fulbright and Jaworski attorneys turned a weapon of torture, "The Bull Hook," used by Ringling handlers with reckless disregard against the endangered Asian elephants into a harmless sounding "guide." "Advocate" (one who speaks for those who often cannot speak for themselves) became a dirty word. A world renowned elephant expert who testified today was accused of advocating for the elephants! Imagine speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves! How dare she!

As seeds of affirmation were sown by the high powered defendant's attorneys, the plaintiff's attorney scorched the earth with a DVD disc and a finger -- pressing play. The video appearing on the plasma court televisions were in some cases heart-breaking and in others horrifying.

For world renowned elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole, who was the first expert witness of the trial and has studied elephants her entire life, watching Ringling's handlers was a little like watching Nazi's conduct the Holocaust. "This is America," she pleaded with the federal judge. "These animals should not be chained 20 hours a day, beaten with bull hooks and forced to perform these un-natural acts. They are extremely intelligent creatures, they mourn their dead, they use tools, they help their friends up when they are ill, they are extremely social." At one point, while watching Feld Entertainment video of an Asian elephant "Shirley" giving birth, (Shirley's named after Kenneth Feld's aunt who raise him after his mother committed suicide) Dr. Poole choked up.

"In the wild it's a matriarchal system. The women teach the mother how to deliver a baby; they stroke it and talk to it for months. What you saw there is very un-natural." Dr. Poole shook her small frame and head at the same time while watching the repugnance on the screen. "Ringling immediately takes the baby away from the mother according to attorney Katherine Meyer and the bonding process never takes place."

This has been an almost surreal process for me. After 10 years of waiting, Kenneth Feld just a week before this trial, settled an obstruction of justice lawsuit filed by a journalist. It was a strong case and put on display the lengths to which Kenneth Feld resorts in order to protect what he considers his "all American" reputation. That journalist wrote things Feld found offensive. His former chief financial officer turned on him, revealing a plot of deceit and a slew of private investigators who set out to ruin her career. The story reads like a John Le Carre spy novel. Feld employed former CIA deputy director of covert operations for the CIA -- Clair George for a little hanky-panky -- and the circus act began, Tah-dah!

Kenneth Feld is no fellow we journalists want to piss off. As a fledgling journalist, Finley Peter Dunne once taught us that our job was to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." But, that's not the way the job is allowed to work much anymore. Not if you want to keep it. The journalist whose career lay in ruins asked for dozens of millions in damages and that ( I'm told behind the scenes) is pretty much what she got..

Beyond all that, I still cannot get over feeling as if those involved in this case are yelling "A tree's on fire, a tree's on fire!" when the whole forest if burning.

Tuberculosis was mentioned just one time during opening arguments in the trial. Most, if not all of Kenneth Feld's performing endangered elephants have had Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. At least as many as 26 have died over the last 15 years with necropsies indicating most had tuberculosis and in some cases never knew it.

I cannot stop thinking about little kids and old or sick circus patrons with compromised immune systems sitting "Under the Big Top" eating cotton candy and getting exposed to TB. The stories of TB cases rising inundate newspapers, and it's a fact, elephants and humans have the same type of TB and it can be transmitted to humans.

Now the story includes all seven of the deadly sins. Lust (for power) gluttony (over indulgence) greed, sloth, envy and pride.

That's the big picture I see. Tah Dah! And on with the show.