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Elephant Abuse Under Big Top?

The treatment of elephants in captivity has been debated for decades. Now, animal welfare groups are suing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for what they call abusive treatment of elephants.

Early Show correspondent and resident veterinarian Dr. Debbye Turner Bell took a close look at heart-wrenching footage before the trial was to begin Wednesday.

"We've all seen them, elephants marching in the big top and standing on tiny pedestals. But what does it take to get the massive pachyderms to do those tricks?" Bell asked.

That's at the center of a first-of-its-kind lawsuit that claims mistreating circus elephants is nothing to clown around about.

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And though the Ringling Bros. circus has long dubbed itself "The Greatest Show on Earth," some animal rights groups say elephants are being abused under the big top.

Purported undercover video provided to CBS News by the Animal Welfare Institute shows Asian elephants kept by Ringling Bros. enduring harsh treatment.

"We have amassed a wealth of video footage throughout this case. We have video footage that shows the elephants being hit with bull hooks, being struck with bull hooks," said Tracey Silverman, an attorney for the institute that, along with the ASPCA and the Fund for Animals, is suing the company that owns the circus. Their hope is to stop what they call inhumane treatment of an endangered species.

"They have the elephants hours and hours continuously chained," Silverman said.

After eight years of pretrial motions and depositions, their case was to be heard in the U.S. District court in Washington, D.C., starting Wednesday. Ringling Bros. maintains the video is heavily edited and taken out of context.

But former Ringling Bros. barn keeper Tom Rider, who worked for the circus from 1997 to 1999 and is a plaintiff in the suit, says he saw abuse.

"Hooking, hitting. I saw elephants hit. I saw elephants bleed. I saw what I call systematic daily abuse," Rider said.

Ringling Bros. dismisses Rider's claims and says he has been paid by animal welfare groups for speaking out against the circus.

"Ringling Bros. is looking forward to this upcoming trial to set the record straight and have the opportunity to show the American public and the federal court that they take excellent care of their elephants," said Michelle Pardo, attorney for Feld Entertainment.

Ringling Bros. says the circus has complied with vigorous state and federal regulations.

"They have never found any allegations to be with merit," Pardo said.

"We have no intentions of shutting down the circus. We just want to make sure that the elephants are afforded the protections that they are entitled to, that they deserve, that they're treated humanely under the law," Silverman said.

It is important to note that the use of the bull hook to control elephants is a common practice, Turner Bell pointed out. However, the Animal Welfare Institute maintains that Ringling Bros.' practices are cruel.

Ringling Bros. vehemently denies these claims and say they spend $60,000 each on its 54 elephants.

"It's going to be an interesting trial," Turner Bell said.

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