SAN JOSE — Asia, the circus elephant, has wowed audiences around the nation with her leg lifts, ring prancing and ear-flapping headstands. But is she a willing performer, or a victim of animal abuse at the hands of one of the circus world's leading trainers?
That question will be put to Santa Clara County jurors this week in a criminal trial that activists hope will blow the big top off the Greatest Show on Earth and its animal treatment practices.
Animal-rights advocates have long accused Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus of using brutal training methods on its performing animals. But Ringling officials say the San Jose case, stemming from an incident here last summer, marks the first time any of their performers has been criminally prosecuted for elephant abuse.
At center ring is one of Ringling Bros.' human stars, Mark Oliver Gebel, the 31-year-old son of legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, who was a marquee performer for two decades before his death in July.
Trading his flamboyant circus outfit for a black business suit, the trainer sat next to his mother in the front row of the crowded courtroom Monday as lawyers argued pretrial motions.
Gebel, prosecutors allege, gouged at Asia's hide with a metal hook before a show here in August, leaving a nickel-sized bloody spot on her left front leg. If found guilty of the misdemeanor elephant abuse count, Gebel could face a six-month jail term and a $1,000 fine.
Animal activists say the real blow would be to Ringling Bros.' worldwide reputation.
"This case is important because the public gets to learn how the animals are really treated," said Deniz Bolbol, a spokesperson for Citizens for Cruelty-free Circuses, a Bay Area animal rights organization.
The circus once paid $20,000 to settle elephant abuse allegations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture--administrators of the federal Animal Welfare Act--after a sick pachyderm performed before it could be examined by a veterinarian. The elephant later died.
And the California trial follows an attempt two years ago by the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley to bring charges against the circus. In that case, investigators allegedly found puncture wounds on seven elephants. Prosecutors declined to file charges, citing insufficient evidence.
Circus officials accuse prosecutors of filing the current case under pressure from the activists. They say Gebel has spent a lifetime caring for animals and would never harm Asia, a 4-ton elephant he has trained for 12 years.
"[Gebel] is an outstanding caretaker, and he works for an organization that loves the animals," said Catherine Ort-Mabry, a spokesperson for Ringling Bros. "He knows what they need to thrive, and they do thrive under his care."
Ringling Bros. has countered mistreatment accusations with a public relations campaign touting its conservation efforts and animal care facilities.
The circus calls itself a leader in the care of elephants. The animals--among them tigers, horses and zebras--are "pampered" performers watched over by veterinarians 24 hours a day. All in all, the circus says, its animals live healthier, safer and longer lives than their wildlife brethren.
But critics--among them former employees of the circus--contend that abuses are systemic, and that training methods include brutal beatings with clubs and long periods without food.
The Humane Society here is viewed as the most aggressive organization in a state considered among the most progressive enforcers of animal welfare laws. California remains the only state that prohibits the use of tools to discipline or punish elephants.
The incident involving Asia occurred in August, as Gebel was leading a line of elephants into San Jose's Compaq Arena for the grand finale. With numerous witnesses watching, Gebel allegedly yelled and lunged at the elephants, urging them to move faster.
Asia, who had bolted forward, was found to have a bloody spot on her leg. Authorities say Gebel punctured Asia's hide with an ankus, a hooked metal stick that resembles a fireplace poker and is used to guide circus animals. At the trial, which is expected to last five days, evidence will include photographs of the alleged wound and at least six witnesses.
Gebel's attorney, James McManis, scoffed at the charge, saying the alleged injury was superficial. He compared it to the blood-test blotch that result from laboratory tests on people.
"We're talking about an 8,000-pound elephant that stands 8 feet tall," McManis said. "The [alleged] wound is the size of a pinprick."
Officials say trainers use the ankus, or bull hook, to guide the elephants and that the instrument does not inflict pain. McManis said that Asia's red mark disappeared after being washed and that a veterinarian found no signs of injury.
Asia continues to perform, officials said. They say she is a "sweet-natured" elephant, so friendly that she is one of the animals that children get to touch before the circus.
But activists doubt Asia is really happy. They think she performs only to escape punishment. If the ankus is meant as a guiding stick, why does it have a hook at the end, they argue. They compare the performance animals' situation to the plight of human freaks who were once featured at circuses.
"We've come a long way as a society," said Christine Benninger, executive director of the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley. "And now I think society is beginning to understand that we also need to be compassionate with wild exotic animals that are residents of these circuses."