Trial of circus trainer is big moment for animal activists

By Brian Bergstein The Associated Press
Saturday December 15, 2001

Years of protesting, complaining come to a head as one prominent performer opens a bloody wound on an elephant 


SAN JOSE — This is the moment animal activists have all been waiting for: One of the most prominent performers in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is going on trial Monday for allegedly using a hooked stick to open up a bloody wound on an elephant’s side. 

Protesters have complained for years that circus animals are consigned to miserable lives, trained with painful methods and inhumanely chained, caged and handled. But few circus workers have ever faced criminal charges. 

Now activists hope the trial of Mark Oliver Gebel, son of the legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, lends more credibility to their claims against “The Greatest Show on Earth.” 

“This is going to be a very interesting trial, mainly because it is Ringling, which bills itself as the top-of-the-line circus, with the best record, best resources, best treatment of animals,” said Richard Farinato, director of captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “This is pretty high-profile in the battle over whether circuses should use wild animals.” 

Gebel, 31, is charged with elephant abuse, a misdemeanor that carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

His attorney, James McManis, calls the case preposterous. He said Gebel would never be anything but kind to animals, having grown up around them during the 21-year Ringling Bros. career of his father, who died in July at age 66. 

“I think these animal rights people are making a big mistake if this is where they’re going to make their stand on animals in the circus, because nothing happened here,” McManis said. “This is going to be a big embarassment.” 

In this year’s circus program, Gebel says he’s “grown up with many of the elephants here.” 

“And the bond we have is as powerful as between any friends. These elephants are always there for us. In return, they know that we’ll always be there for them.” 

Humane Society officers and a San Jose police sergeant were monitoring the animals outside a show here on Aug. 25 when they allegedly saw Gebel, wearing a flamboyant coat with a high collar and tails, lunge at two elephants and yell at them to move faster. They say an elephant named Asia quickly jolted forward. 

The elephants went into the arena and performed, but after the show, the witnesses noticed “a nickel-sized red bloody spot” on Asia’s left front leg. 

The witnesses believe Gebel punctured Asia’s skin with an ankus, a metal stick with a hook at the end that resembles a fireplace poker. Ringling Bros. says the ankus, or bull hook, is used to guide elephants like a leash or a set of reins, not to cause pain or discomfort as activists insist. 

McManis contends that the red mark on Asia disappeared when she was washed later that day, and that a veterinarian found no sign she had been injured. He said the witnesses were too far away to clearly see what Gebel was doing and were motivated by an anti-circus agenda. 

Last year, the same witnesses said they found cuts and puncture wounds on seven Ringling elephants performing in San Jose. Prosecutors said then that there was not enough evidence to bring charges. 

This time, the witnesses’ reports were enough to persuade the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office to take the case. Prosecutor Carolyn Powell said she has gotten hundreds of supportive letters and e-mails from animal lovers around the world. 

Among the supporters is Tom Rider, a former Ringling barn worker who now travels the country protesting with animal rights activists at Ringling performances. 

“They use the bull hook in an aggressive manner every day at Ringling,” Rider said. “They hit them on the head, trunk, legs, shoulders — it’s systematic daily abuse.” 

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture accused Ringling of forcing an ill elephant named Kenny to perform before he could be examined by a veterinarian. Kenny died, and Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc., settled the complaint by agreeing to pay $20,000 to elephant-related causes. 

Since then, USDA investigators have looked into at least two complaints from the public about puncture wounds or lesions on Ringling elephants, including one “possibly secondary to excessive use of an overly sharp ankus hook.” 

In both cases, the agency found no evidence of any wounds or abuse, though the inspections occurred 21 days after one complaint and four months after the other. 

Pat Cuviello, 41, who has covertly videotaped workers at circuses in the San Francisco Bay Area for 14 years, showed The Associated Press footage of several Ringling Bros. workers — though not Gebel — poking or hitting elephants, in a few cases after looking around first, apparently to see if anyone was watching. 

In one clip that activists hope will provide compelling evidence at the trial, Gebel can be seen briefly reaching with a stick, possibly an ankus, under an elephant before a show the next day near San Francisco. 

However, Gebel appears to use the stick rather casually, while talking to a man next to him, and McManis said the tape in no way depicts abuse by Gebel. 

Ringling spokeswoman Catherine Ort-Mabry said the other workers filmed by Cuviello were reprimanded for “unprofessional behavior” but did not harm the elephants. She said those incidents — and other complaints against the circus — are extremely isolated. 

“If there is trauma to an animal, it shows up in the animal’s behavior,” she said. “You can see the obvious affection between the animals and the handlers. The animals are healthy, in good shape and they live great lives.”