Protesters have complained for years that circus animals are trained with painful methods and inhumanely chained, caged and handled. But few circus workers have ever faced criminal charges.
Activists hope Monday's trial of animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel, son of the legendary circus showman Gunther Gebel-Williams, will lend more credibility to their allegations 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 of the Humane Society of the United States.
Gebel, 31, is charged with animal abuse for allegedly puncturing an elephant's hide. The offense 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 animal-trainer father, who died in July at age 66.
In the circus program, Gebel says his bond with the elephants "is as powerful as between any friends."
"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 embarrassment."
Humane Society officers and a San Jose police officer were monitoring the animals outside an arena 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 hide with an ankus, a hooked metal stick that resembles a fireplace poker. Ringling Bros. says the ankus, or bull hook, is used to guide elephants like a leash, not to cause pain.
McManis contends that Asia's red mark 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 had 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 prosecutors to take the case. Prosecutor Carolyn Powell said she has gotten hundreds of supportive letters and e-mails from animal loveraround 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 a sick elephant to perform before it could be examined by a veterinarian. The animal died. Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc., settled the complaint by agreeing to pay $20,000 to elephant-related causes.
Since then, Agriculture Department investigators have looked into at least two complaints from the public about puncture wounds or lesions on Ringling elephants.
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, apparently to see if anyone was watching.
Ringling spokeswoman Catherine Ort-Mabry said those workers were reprimanded for "unprofessional behavior" but did not harm the elephants.
"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."
By Brian Bergstein © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed