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Animal Rights Activists Claim Ringling Bros. Elephant Collapsed From Untreated Illness

ANAHEIM (CBS) — Animal rights activists are crying foul, claiming that Ringling Bros. Circus is mistreating their elephants and they have video they say proves it.

Animal Defenders International (ADI) say there's video of a Ringling Bros. elephant collapsing as it was trying to cross a ramp onto a rail car after a performance at the Honda Center in Anaheim. They say the incident is symptomatic of an underlying condition the elephant, "Sarah", is experiencing that the circus is not addressing.

Ringling Bros Elephant On Ground1
(credit: Ameer Sanghvi/UGC/CBS)

"We're calling for the USDA to pull her off the road so she gets the vet attention she needs and to get diagnosed," ADI campaign director Matt Rossell said.

Veterinarians have tested "Sarah" and found high white blood count levels and evidence of frequent vaginal discharge, acorrding to a USDA citation which Ringling Bros. says they plan on challenging.

ADI says those symptoms are irregular for elephants and suggest "Sarah" has an infection that's going untreated.

"We feel that [Sarah] is fatigued and that she's stressed and that she's sick -- animals don't typically fall off platforms."

"There are multiple elephants that are sick that should be pulled off the road," Rossell said.

The elephant was being escorted out of a performance at the Honda Center when she was led back to the Ringling Bros. train. She was guided onto a ramp when she fell off the platform and onto the gravel below. Witnesses say it took the pachyderm 10 minutes before she was able to get up.

The question is: Did "Sarah" fall by accident or because she's sick?

Ringling Bros. says the whole incident has been taken out of context. They released the following statement:

"Sarah, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey elephant on the Red Unit, is healthy. The most recent allegations by Animal Defenders International (ADI) are not only false but grossly out of context. The facts are, following the final show in Anaheim, Calif., Sarah escorted by her handlers up the loading ramp into the elephant train car when she shifted her position, backing down the ramp, causing her to lose her balance, where she kneeled and rolled down the ramp onto the ground.

"It took approximately ten minutes for her handlers to allow Sarah to reposition herself and stand on her own, which she did. Sarah was immediately examined by a Ringling Bros. veterinary technician as well as Orange County animal control officers who were present during the incident. They found that she received minor abrasions but was otherwise in good condition.

"Following her examination Sarah was accompanied up the ramp and entered the train car without incident.  She has also been examined by a Ringling Bros. veterinarian, and a follow up visit in Ontario by city animal control officers found her to be good health. It is appalling that ADI would manipulate an incident and the public to further their agenda."

Ringling Bros. spokesman Chris Reichert maintains that "Sarah" has never before had incidents that would cause alarm.

"Never," said Reichert, adding, "This is the first incident we've had with her. This is basically her falling as a complete accident and it had nothing to do with any kind of condition [the ADI] is claiming she has."

The man who shot the video of "Sarah" disagrees.

"It was not a mistake," according to Ameer Sanghvi, an Anaheim resident who filmed the circus team after the performance as the animals were moved to the train. "She was struggling to put the first step on the ramp. She wasn't physically able...I think she was too tired and too helpless."

Sanghvi, an IT worker at Fullerton College, said he goes to the circus for the acrobats but is offended by the alleged mistreatment of the animal performers.

"If no one is watching, sometimes, they hurt the elephants to get them to move faster."

Reichart said after the incident in Anaheim [Sarah] was taken to Ontario and local animal control inspectors, along with Ringling Bros. veterinarians, inspected the elephant and gave her a clean bill of health.

"She's in perfect health," said Ringling Bros. elephant manager Brian French, who works with "Sarah". "She has veterinarian check-ups weekly."

The trainer said the fall was a simple misstep on the elephant's part as she was trying to readjust herself to get into the rail car. He said trainers checked "Sarah" for injuries while she was down on the ground and, after determining she was fine, gave her the chance to get up on her own after several tries.

CBS2 contacted the USDA in response to the ADI's allegations and request.

"We have received several written complaints on the incident involving Sarah falling while being loaded in Anaheim. It is our standard policy that we take all complaints seriously, so we will indeed be looking into this matter very carefully," Spokesman Dave Sacks wrote in an e-mail. "Members of our Western Regional Office have not seen the video taken by Animal Defenders International, as ADI did not supply it to the regional office as part of the complaint."

The ADI has repeatedly criticized Ringling Bros., and others who train elephants for entertainment purposes, for allegedly using electric rods and bullhooks to "break" the animals to be obedient.

French said he'd never use an electric rod nor would he allow anything like that to be used on the elephants.

But he says trainers do use a "guide", a stick as thin as a finger with a curved, sharp end.

Rossell said that's nothing more than a bullhook, a rod he claims is used in violent training techniques which the ADI has documented in their undercover investigations of elephant trainers across the world.

French said, as a fourth-generation elephant handler, he'd never mistreat his charges and that the elephants are like family.

Rossell said, "If that's family, then they're an abusive family."

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