Defense rests without calling witnesses in Ringling Bros. elephant abuse case

By Brian Bergstein, The Associated Press
Friday December 21, 2001

SAN JOSE — In a surprise move, the defense rested Thursday without calling any witnesses in the elephant abuse trial of a star Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performer. 

Mark Oliver Gebel, 31, is accused of using a hooked stick called an ankus to puncture an elephant’s skin outside a performance in San Jose last summer. Gebel was expected to testify that he did nothing wrong. 

But defense attorney James McManis said the evidence against Gebel is so weak, “there’s no need to rebut a non-case.” 

“I think this case has gone on far too long and I want to get it in the hands of the jury,” McManis said outside court. 

Deliberations are expected to begin Friday after closing arguments from both sides. Gebel, son of the legendary Ringling Bros. trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, could face six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

Before resting his case, McManis asked the judge to dismiss the misdemeanor charge against Gebel, saying the allegations were not severe enough to be covered by the unique California law barring elephant abuse. 

McManis argued that the law, which was passed after an elephant was forcibly brought to the ground at the San Diego Zoo in 1989, was meant to prevent beatings and other severe punishment. Even if Gebel did strike the elephant, the wound was equivalent to a mere pinprick, McManis said. 

Prosecutor Carolyn Powell countered that the law bars any breakage of an elephant’s skin, no matter how big the wound. 

Judge Linda Condron refused to dismiss the case and end the four-day trial, saying she believed there was “substantial evidence” to support a conviction that could withstand appeal. 

The case is being closely watched by animal rights groups that for years have accused Ringling Bros. and other circuses of mistreating their animals. Few criminal charges against circus performers have resulted. 

A San Jose police sergeant and a Humane Society investigator said they heard Gebel yell at an elephant named Asia and lunge toward her, though they did not see him make contact. Those witnesses and another Humane Society investigator later saw a small blood stain just under Asia’s left front leg; one of the investigators said she saw two spots where Asia’s skin appeared to have been punctured. 

A former circus trainer who now runs an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and the director of the Oakland Zoo both testified Thursday that after studying pictures of the stain, they also believed Asia’s skin was punctured. 

The defense has argued that the mark came off when Asia was bathed, and that a Ringling veterinarian found no evidence the animal was hurt.