But away from the arena, the Asian elephants used in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are at the heart of perhaps the most bitter animal-care fight around, one that's dragged through court for six years already and is inching toward a trial.
It's a heavyweight bout, pitting America's biggest circus against some of the most influential animal-welfare groups. Ringling insists that its elephants receive state-of-the-art treatment and it's determined to keep them in its cast.
Its adversaries — a group including the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Welfare Institute — argue vehemently that circus life is inherently cruel to the elephants.
They allege that the use of sharpened hooks by trainers, the routine use of chains, the separation of baby elephants from their mothers and other common circus practices add up to an egregious violation of the Endangered Species Act, which covers the Asian elephant and prohibits harm to it. The suit's goal is a court order halting these practices, which the activists believe would force Ringling to give up elephants altogether.
"It's impossible to have these animals in captivity the way they are without it leading to abuse — traveling in chains in boxcars up to 50 weeks, performing tricks because of force and intimidation," said Michelle Thew of the Animal Protection Institute, another plaintiff.
Ringling shows no signs of bowing to pressure, and has become more outspoken in defending itself since the first-of-its-kind suit was filed in 2000.
"We train animals through reward, repetition and reinforcement based on science," said former zookeeper Bruce Read, Ringling's vice president for animal stewardship. "Punishment is not used in the circus."
While the lawsuit protests the use of sharp-ended bullhooks to prod the elephants, Read defends them as "a very accepted tool" developed over many centuries to control the animals humanely. Activists say the implements — which resemble long fire pokers — often inflict scar-causing wounds.
Government regulations permit use of chains. Read said elephants are chained in place at night to keep them from foraging their companions' food, and during train rides to prevent sudden weight shifts that might derail the freight car.
More generally, Read said circus life — including 50 weeks a year on the road — is not stressful to the elephants because the social groups around them, animal and human, are stable. He said young elephants aren't separated from their mothers until trainers are confident of their maturity.
"The Asian elephant has been semi-domesticated for centuries," said Read, citing its use in warfare, farming and various ceremonies. "Our circus brings them to areas where people don't see such animals very often. That's not something we should deprive our future generations of."
The first phase of the lawsuit lasted three years, with Feld Entertainment Inc. — Ringling's parent company — finally losing a bid to have the case dismissed by a federal court in Washington, D.C. Since 2003, the two sides have engaged in a slow-moving battle over the plaintiffs' access to thousands of Ringling veterinary documents and in-house videos.
"They repeatedly claim that their elephants are healthy and well-treated, yet when we ask for documents that would prove that, they fight us tooth and nail in court," said attorney Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society's vice president for animal protection litigation. He expects the case will go to trial next year.
The lawsuit has coincided with protest campaigns urging a boycott of circuses that feature animals at a time when others, such as Cirque du Soleil, have developed animal-free productions. Fifteen U.S. municipalities, but no major cities, ban animal circuses.
Virginia-based Feld Entertainment is privately held and doesn't disclose circus revenue figures, thus depriving critics of any evidence that the protests might be taking a toll.
"Animal rights groups find they get more attention for their cause when they go after The Greatest Show On Earth," said Feld spokeswoman Amy McWethy. "But according to our research and customer feedback surveys, activists have had no impact on the decision to attend."
She said annual attendance at Ringling's circuses is more than 10 million, and audience surveys rate elephants as by far the favorite attraction.
Of Ringling's 55 elephants, up to 20 are touring at any one time in the three circus units. Most of the others live at Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation, a $5 million, 200-acre facility in central Florida that doubles as retirement home and breeding center.
The principal referee in the dispute over Ringling's elephants is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Numerous times, agency inspectors have found Ringling in noncompliance of the Animal Welfare Act, but the circus — to the dismay of activists — each time was able to take steps that spared it from being formally classified as a violator.
USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said four investigations into Ringling's animal care remain open, but he wouldn't provide details. Activists say at least two of the investigations involve deaths of young elephants at the Florida conservation center.
Ted Friend, an animal science professor at Texas A&M, said he and his students have traveled with Ringling for research projects and have never observed "overt cruelty" by trainers or handlers. Friend attributes the anti-Ringling campaign to competition among animal-welfare groups for publicity and contributions.
"This isn't about fundraising — it's about getting the truth to the public," retorted Michelle Thew. "Ringling Bros. is going to lose not only in court but in the court of public opinion."