In a defeat for animal rights activists, a San Jose jury Friday acquitted a star Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus trainer of charges that he abused an elephant off stage during a show last summer.
Mark Oliver Gebel, 31, could have faced six months in jail if convicted of mistreating Asia, a 4-ton performing elephant.
The bigger blow that activists sought to strike was against a circus that bills itself as the "Greatest Show on Earth" yet has been dogged by animal mistreatment accusations.
Gebel, the son of legendary Ringling Bros. animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, beamed after the verdict.
"I'm very relieved," he said, adding that the possibility of a jail sentence "was in the back of my mind. But I knew in my heart that this was the way it would go."
Ringling Bros. officials said they felt that the circus itself had been vindicated by the jury, which reached a decision after two hours of deliberation.
"This whole case was orchestrated by a group of extreme individuals who feel it's their mission to end the use of animals in circuses," said Catherine Ort-Mabry, a Ringling Bros. spokeswoman. "The jury saw through the charade. What this proves is that behind the big top there is love and respect for all animals."
Activists said their disappointment over the verdict was tempered by a realization that the case had brought widespread attention to their lonely push to stem the abuse of circus animals.
"From our perspective, it was a pretty clear case, and I'm disappointed," said Christine Benninger, executive director of the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley. "The good news is the issue has been brought up in the public arena."
For several years, animal rights groups have accused Ringling Bros. of using glitz and reputation to camouflage off-stage mistreatment of elephants and other performing animals.
The circus once paid $20,000 to settle abuse allegations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal Animal Welfare Act, after a sick elephant performed before it could be examined by a veterinarian. The animal later died.
Allegations against Gebel followed an effort two years ago by the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley to bring similar charges against the circus. Investigators in that case allegedly found puncture wounds on seven elephants. Prosecutors declined to file charges, however, citing insufficient evidence.
In the latest case, circus officials accused prosecutors of filing charges under pressure from animal rights activists. They argued that Gebel has spent a lifetime caring for animals and would never harm Asia, a docile elephant he has trained for 12 years.
Ringling Bros. has countered mistreatment accusations with a public relations campaign touting its conservation efforts and animal care facilities. Circus officials say the animals are "pampered" and are far healthier and live longer than those in the wild.
Critics, including former employees of the circus, contend that abuses are rife, with training methods that sometimes include brutal beatings and long periods without food.
"We know this type of abuse is happening on a regular basis," said Deniz Bolbol of Citizens for Cruelty-Free Circuses, a San Jose-based group. "As the public comes to realize what's really going on beyond the spotlight, I believe they'll stop going to the circus. But it's not going to be a quick thing."
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. A San Jose police sergeant and a Humane Society investigator who were monitoring the animals testified that Gebel yelled and lunged at the elephants, urging them to move faster.
Asia, who bolted forward, afterward had what appeared to be a bloody spot on her leg. Authorities say Gebel punctured Asia's hide with an ankus or bull hook, which resembles a fireplace poker and is used to guide elephants.
Gebel, whose father was a marquee performer for two decades before he died in July, sat through the trial with his mother, Sigrid, and Ringling Bros. owner Kenneth Feld.
The trainer did not testify during the five-day trial. His attorney, James McManis, said the prosecution's evidence was so weak that he didn't need to call a single witness.
During closing arguments, McManis said there was no proof that the stain on Asia's hide was from blood. Even if Gebel accidentally poked Asia with the ankus, he said, any wound to the elephant was equivalent to a paper cut.
Prosecutor Carolyn Powell countered that the witnesses were not animal activists but rational people concerned about the elephant's well-being.
The only requirement for a guilty verdict, she told the jury, was proof that Gebel disciplined Asia with punishment that broke her skin. Powell said the case was not "about whether the circus is good or bad."