Animal welfare groups are expected to protest this week's arrival of the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Las Vegas.
Animal groups will haul Ringling Brothers into federal court with a lawsuit alleging the circus is cruel to its endangers Asian Elephants.
The group has long accused the circus of animal cruelty and court records show the circus has played rough in response. It spent millions of dollars on a 10 year espionage campaign which infiltrated and spied on animal organizations and activists.
The man in charge was previously the head of Covert Operations for the CIA.
Animal groups hope to have the last word when they haul Ringling Brothers into federal court this October with a lawsuit alleging the circus is cruel to its endangers Asian Elephants.
Ringling Brothers is regarded as the biggest and best circus in the world. Unlike smaller operations, they take pride in the care it provides to exotic animals, including its large herd of endangered Asian Elephants.
Other circuses have seen their elephants run amok, attack cruel trainers and get gunned down in the street, but not Ringling.
The circus rakes in more than $100 million a year for Las Vegas impresario Kenneth Feld, who also produced the Siegfried and Roy show. The elephants are so popular that Ringling says the show could not go on without them. At least one former employee says that's ridiculous.
"This is a town that has Cirque De Soleil. They don't have animals. They make a ton of money. Why can't Ringling Brothers do that?" said Tom Rider.
Rider spent two and a half years working with the Ringling elephants. He got to know each of them individually, their distinct personalities, fell in love with the big pachyderms but quit in disgust because of what he alleges is an ongoing pattern of physical abuse and psychological torture.
"They are making these elephants bleed for our entertainment. That's absolutely wrong," he said.
Rider and other ex-Ringling employees have told investigators horror stories about elephants whose hides are scarred by beatings, open wounds, untreated infections, rampant tuberculosis , animals that died and babies ripped away from their mothers, telltale signs of fear and emotional turmoil generated by trainers who use so-called bullhooks to teach the elephants who's boss and internal memos written by Ringling's own animal experts that could bolster the testimony of the whistleblowers.
Ringling says its elephants are so valuable it would make no sense to abuse them. In October, the circus will have a chance to crush its critics when a federal court finally hears the lawsuit filed eight years ago by Rider and leading animal welfare groups.
The critics want Ringling to permanently retire its elephants because they say it is inherently cruel to force these behemoths to live like traveling carnies -- in chains most of their lives and housed in cramped rail cars.
"They travel up to 48 to 50 weeks a year in a railroad car -- chained from show to show. That's their home. It's their whole existence," said animal welfare activist Linda Faso.
Not true says Ringling. The company owns a sprawling facility in Florida where elephants can kick back when they're not on the road.
But animal groups say the elephant facility is primarily an elephant factory -- a breeding operation created, not to preserve the species, but to make sure the circus will own future generations of performers.
"It's like a puppy mill for elephants. They are literally just breeding baby elephants to put them into the circus," said Rider.
The circus says that its trainers can tell which elephants enjoy performing and which ones don't. A baby that doesn't want to be trained isn't, they say, adding that most of the elephants are not only healthy but happy to be in show biz. The plaintiffs think they too can read elephant minds.
"These are wild animals that have to perform on cue day after day. They don't do it because they enjoy it. They do it because they are afraid and they're forced to. It's like a battered woman. They take it and they take it and they take it, and it's really sad. And people buying tickets need to know that," said Faso.
Ringling Brothers notes that it has never been found to be in violation of animal welfare laws, but government records show it has been cited many time by USDA inspectors although the citations were quashed by higher ups.
The USDA official who, for 27 years, was in charge of the inspection program for exotic animals changed jobs a few years ago. He was hired away by Ringling.