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Ringling Adds Image-Taming to Its Act : Circus: Handling animals is nothing new to Barnum & Bailey, which hits Anaheim Thursday. Handling activists is.

August 02, 1995|CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Dame is already 24 years old, but she still plays like a child.

The gray, medium-sized Asian elephant, with gorgeous, droopy eyes and a trunk that just won't hold still, was literally getting a kick out of the parking lot at the Long Beach Arena. A little patch of month-old tar and pebbles had been used to fill in a pothole on the lot, and it happened to be right in the corner of the 50-foot playpen where Dame and four of her pachyderm friends were roaming. The majestic animal kept digging her feet into the rubble, picking up the debris with her trunk and throwing it in the air. It looked as if she was having a blast.

Clearly, though, her fun had the makings of trouble.

"Oh no, we're probably going to have to pay for a new parking lot by the time we get out of here," joked trainer Mark Oliver Gebel who, at the same age as Dame, is responsible for her care. And for seeing that she doesn't wreak havoc.

Gebel is the son of Gunther Gebel-Williams, the king of animal trainers, who has been with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1969. The elder Gebel retired from the ring in 1990 to take on a supervising position; his son carries on the tradition of wowing families four or five nights a week with a parade of animal tricks and stunts.

Tricks are nothing, though. A greater task for Gebel and Ringling Bros.--which comes to The Pond of Anaheim on Thursday--is seeing that all its animals, including tigers, horses, zebras, camels, llamas and elephants, lead healthy, happy lives while on tour.

Even more difficult is convincing much of the public--namely, people who sympathize with animal-rights causes--that the circus meets these challenges and treats its animals like royalty.

Animal-rights activists charge that all circuses, including Ringling Bros., keep their animals confined in chains, train cars or cages all day. They charge that handlers hit, poke and abuse the animals, and that diets and health are not properly supervised.

They have some proof, too. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supplied a very brief video to reporters that showed unidentified Ringling Bros. workers whacking animals with whips and prods, plus testimony of witnesses and former trainers who describe abuse and mishandling. The evidence against Ringling Bros. is really not much compared to what they have on smaller circuses, but for animal-rights groups, it's enough.

"We certainly don't concur that it's the greatest show on Earth," says Madeline Bernstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Philosophically, there's the question of keeping animals penned and exploiting them just for entertainment value. But there's also the question of how well the animals in [Ringling Bros.] have been treated, the answer to which is not very good."

"Ringling Bros is the richest and has the most money for PR and nice leaflets on how well their animals are treated, but it's not true," says Jennifer Allen, a researcher with PETA in Washington.

She is right about Ringling Bros. having the money for nice leaflets on its animals' care. The brochures are full color, with wonderful pictures.

The company also has a good idea how to handle its image. A photo request to show the elephants with chains around their ankles was politely denied (the work schedule didn't allow it), even though it really wasn't that dramatic of a sight.

And Tyrone Taylor, the Ringling tiger trainer, concedes that the company has had meetings on how to answer animal-rights activists' charges while speaking to the public and the media.

"They tell us to not get angry, which is what I really want to do, but to try and talk coolly and to get people to think," Taylor says. "That's what I try and do. I try and convince them that we love our animals and they lead great lives here. And you know what? A lot of times it works."

Both Gebel and Taylor emphasize that they use positive reinforcement and voice commands to train their animals. They say they don't whip the animals and that they certainly don't use iron prods.

As for confinement of the creatures, which includes train rides from city to city, the circus says the animals get plenty of exercise and don't lead cramped lives.

"Compared to zoo animals and even animals in the wild--except for those that have to travel great distances to hunt for food--our animals get more exercise," says Richard Houck, the Ringling Bros. veterinarian. "Our animals perform; they practice, we walk them--they have very full days, and they're in great shape."

Houck was talking by phone from central Florida at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Elephant Farm, a 200-acre breeding and retirement facility founded in 1985. While Houck does travel with either of the circus' two touring units, he can't be everywhere at once, so if an emergency or even a small health problem comes up, he says, he has a personal network of veterinarian friends in each city whom the circus calls upon.

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