Potential profits from cancer-fighting gene discovery trump show biz
ELLENTON, Florida; UDAWALAWE, Sri Lanka––Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus executive vice president and show producer Alana Feld on January 11, 2016 “told The Associated Press exclusively” that all eleven elephants now touring with the three Ringling circus units “will be permanently retired to the company’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida” by May 2016, Associated Press writer Tamara Lush reported.
Instead of performing, the Ringling elephants will become part of an ongoing cancer research project, which has already identified a cancer-fighting gene unique to elephants.
University of Chicago researchers Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel estimated in the May 2006 edition of the Journal of Political Economy that “1% reduction in mortality from cancer has a value to Americans of nearly $500 billion. A cure for cancer would be worth about $50 trillion.”
By comparison, Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment at about $1.8 billion, with annual gross revenue of about $1 billion per year.
Alana Feld, Feld Entertainment president Kenneth Feld and executive vice president Juliette Feld had announced on March 5, 2015 Ringling would quit exhibiting elephants by 2018, when pending contractual commitments will have been fulfilled.
“Could do this sooner”
But as Ringling arranged the details, Alana Feld told Lush, the circus management realized “we could actually do this a lot sooner,” because expanding the Center for Elephant Conservation facilities did not take as long as had been expected.”
Wrote Lush, “It costs about $65,000 yearly to care for each elephant, Feld said, and the company had to build new structures to house the retiring elephants at the center,” located in Polk City, between Orlando and Tampa.
The 200-acre Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation already housed 29 Ringling elephants who had either been retired from performing or had never been used to perform. Two other Ringling elephants are on loan to zoos. Altogether Ringling now has 42 elephants, down from 54 in 2008.
Test tube repro
Feld Entertainment on October 29, 2015 “held a ‘town hall meeting’ to share information about the ongoing cancer research with several hundred Feld employees as well as with the media,” reported Michael Pollick of the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
Summarized Pollick, “a three-year old research project has identified a cancer-killing gene in this long-lived and intelligent animal. Wendy Kiso, a Center for Elephant Conservation researcher, explained that she and her staff take blood samples from their animals in residence on a weekly basis, mostly to improve their chances of reproducing and thus avoid extinction. Now, she is providing samples to a team of scientists that includes pediatric oncologist Joshua Schiffman of Salt Lake City and AviSchroeder, a chemical engineer at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an acknowledged expert in creating synthesized proteins from the blueprint provided by genetic samples.
What is TP-53?
“The collaborative effort is focused on a gene called TP-53,” Pollick continued, “which is nearly identical in elephants and humans, and which plays a key role in both creatures in recognizing and attacking out-of-control cellular growth, the essence of cancer.
“But there are two crucial differences,” Pollick explained. “Elephants are born with 20 pairs of the TP-53 gene per chromosome, while humans only have two per DNA strand — one from their mother and one from their father. Roughly one out of 5,000 humans inherit just one TP-53 gene, instead of two, which vastly increases their chances of getting cancer. Just as importantly, the human version of TP-53 first tries to repair errant cells and then, if unsuccessful, begins destroying them. The elephant version of TP-53 does not bother trying to repair the mutated cells, but simply wipes them out.”
In short, Ringling apparently sees the possibility of restoring image and rebuilding profits by using the former circus elephants to find a cure for cancer.
Toward that end, wrote Pollick, “Schroeter told the Herald-Tribune that he already is synthesizing protein as blueprinted by the TP-53 gene from the Ringling herd, and that he believes it is so similar to the parallel human gene that it could be introduced directly into the human body,” possibly within the next five years
26 births since 1995
Having hosted 26 elephant births since opening in 1995, “The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation is already home to the largest herd of Asian elephants and the most successful breeding program for this endangered species in the Western Hemisphere,” trumpeted a Feld Entertainment media release in March 2015.
“The circus will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers,” Feld Entertainment said, “including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.”
“This unprecedented change in the 145-year old Greatest Show On Earth will allow the company to focus on its Asian elephant conservation programs,” Feld Entertainment said then, “both here in North America and through its partnership with the island nation of Sri Lanka.”
In addition, Feld Entertainment pledged that it “will continue to support the Smithsonian Institution’s research lab working to find a cure for diseases that impact juvenile elephants.”
Specifically, Ringling and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C., better known as the National Zoo, have worked together since 1995 to try to find ways to diagnose, treat and prevent tuberculosis, afflicting about 12% of the U.S. captive elephant population, and endotheliotropic elephant herpesvirus. The latter, called EEHV for short, was first identified after it killed a 16-month-old Asian elephant at the National Zoo.
“Only four known elephants have survived the disease, one of whom resides at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation,” Ringling announced in November 2007. “Since the identification of EEHV, it has been determined that it has caused the death of almost one-quarter of the calves born into human care in North America and Europe, and recently investigators have reported multiple elephant deaths in Asia attributable to EEHV.”
Sri Lanka program
Ringling has in Sri Lanka partnered since 1998 with the University of Peradeniya and the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe National Park.
“Sri Lanka has been rescuing orphaned baby elephants for more than 35 years with state help, and the transit home is part of a drive to save the island’s endangered elephant species,” reported Amal Jayasinghe of Agence France-Presse in 2008, when the 22-member Elephant Transit Home celebrated 64 successful returns of young elephants to the wild since the partnership with Ringling started.
About 10% of the estimated 4,000 elephants in Sri Lanka live within Udawalawe National Park, of whom the Elephant Transit Home at any given time houses about 30.
As of 2008, wrote Jayasinghe, “Some were hit by trains, others shot by farmers, some were rescued from deep wells, and at least one was injured by a land mine blast. Official figures show about 150 elephants are killed annually by villagers protecting their crops.”
Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, had as many as 12,000 elephants at the start of the 20th century, but the population was rapidly depleted by sport hunting during British rule (1815-1948), habitat losses to logging, agriculture, and urban expansion, and captures for export. Most of the present Ringling herd of 42 elephants are believed to be of Sri Lankan ancestry.
“Win for animal rights groups”
The end of Ringling use of elephants in circuses “is a win for animal-rights groups that have long accused Ringling of abusing its pachyderms,” commented Slate senior business and economics correspondent Jordan Weissman. “Much of the controversy has focused on the circus’ use of bullhooks, the long steel-tipped rods that handlers wield to control and train the elephants, which look a bit like large fireplace pokers. PETA, for instance, has released undercover video of the animals seemingly being beaten with the instruments. Ringling and its supporters insist that the hooks don’t inflict pain, thanks to the elephants’ tough skin, and are mostly used to nudge and guide the animals around. But some of the film can be a bit rough to watch.”
PETA & HSUS celebrate
“For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Bros.’ cruelty to elephants,” said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president and founder Ingrid Newkirk in a written statement. “We know extreme abuse to these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the champagne corks, and rejoice.”
Blogged Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, “This was a company that fought animal welfare groups at every turn – before city councils, in state legislatures, within Congress, in the courts, and in the press. The company infiltrated several nonprofit organizations by placing spies in them. Its leadership seemed to have limitless resources, and a fierce resolve to keep the elephants so deeply associated with its brand. And now, just like that, the company announces it will cease its use of elephants in circuses. Get the confetti and streamers. Grab the kids and the dog. Put on the party hat. Head over to the parade. Jump on what remains of the fallen wall and raise your arms.”
“Somewhat of a mood shift”
“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” acknowledged Alana Feld. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”
Reported Associated Press writer Lush, “Another reason for the decision, company President Kenneth Feld said, was that certain cities and counties have passed ‘anti-circus’ and ‘anti-elephant’ ordinances. The company’s three shows visit 115 cities throughout the year, and Feld said it is expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction. It is also difficult to plan tours amid constantly changing regulations, he said.
Asheville, North Carolina, for instance, “recently prohibited wild and exotic animals from performing at the U.S. Cellular Center, the city’s municipal venue,” Lush recounted. “And in Los Angeles in 2014, the city council banned the use of bullhooks.”
Responded Ringling spokesperson Stephen Payne at the time, “Our elephants are the number one reason people come…We’re not just going to drop them off when we play Los Angeles. We’re not going to come to L.A. without our elephants. The Asian elephant has been a symbol of Ringling for 144 years.”
After 2018, Lush predicted, Ringling “will likely showcase more motorsports, daredevils and feats of humans’ physical capabilities. Ringling’s popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and doesn’t use wild animals.”
Said Juliette Feld, a producer of Feld’s Marvel Universe Live, Disney on Ice, and Monster Jam shows, “There are endless possibilities.”
Ringling won in court
While the politics of exhibiting elephants has turned against Ringling, Ringling has won repeatedly in court––and won big––against lawsuits filed by animal advocacy organizations to try to force an end to elephant shows.
Most notably, the Humane Society of the U.S. and codefendants in May 2014 paid $15.75 million to Feld Entertainment to settle countersuits resulting from a lawsuit brought against Feld and Ringling in 2000 by a consortium of animal advocacy organizations including the American SPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Fund for Animals. HSUS became involved after the Fund for Animals merged into HSUS in 2005. The Born Free Foundation was brought into the case after absorbing API at the end of 2007.
The $15.75 million settlement was in addition to a $9.3 million settlement paid to Ringling by the ASPCA in December 2012.
The combined Ringling settlements of just over $25 million exceeded the annual budgets of all but about a dozen of the approximately 10,000 active U.S. animal advocacy and rescue societies.
ESA vs. RICO arguments
The animal advocacy organizations’ case, brought under the Endangered Species Act, was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on the last day of 2009. The Feld Entertainment countersuit, brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, was filed in 2007.
“The Court decided the Endangered Species Act case on the issue of standing, and never ruled on the merits of the elephant abuse allegations,” said then-ASPCA president Ed Sayres in announcing the December 2012 ASPCA settlement. Arriving at the ASPCA three years after the case was filed, Sayres retired in July 2013, succeeded by current ASPCA president Matthew Bershadker.
The initial complaint against Feld and Ringling was dismissed in 2001 after a judicial ruling that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to proceed, but was reinstated on appeal in 2003. The appellate verdict required coplaintiff Tom Rider, a Ringling elephant barn worker in 1997-1999, to establish that he was injured in some manner by Ringling treatment of elephants. Rider failed to satisfy the court on this point, largely because he had been paid for his participation in bringing the case.
Nearly 220 years of conflict
The Ringling RICO case capped conflicts which erupted almost as soon as sea captain Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant seen in the Americas since the ice ages to New York City on April 13, 1796. Customs inspector Nataniel Hathorne, father of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who spelled his name differently), logged the arrival.
Crowninshield sold the elephant to farmer Hackaliah Bailey, of Somers, New York, who formed the ancestor of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus and toured the east coast for 20 years. The elephant was shot by a religious fanatic in either Maine or Rhode Island (accounts differ) in 1816. Clergy from New England to the Carolinas had denounced Bailey’s circus, chiefly as a distraction from churchgoing, but sometimes also as cruel exploitation of the animals.
In 1850, recalled Good Magazine associate features editor Alessandra Rizzotti, “P.T. Barnum founded his Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum, and Menagerie. He hired ‘native assistants’ in Sri Lanka to capture the magnificent wild animals and bring them back to America. Barnum wrote in an autobiography that the expedition ‘killed large numbers of the huge beasts,’ but 11 live elephants endured a 12,000-mile voyage to New York City.”
One elephant died during the voyage. The survivors eventually became part of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. American SPCA founder Henry Bergh clashed with Barnum as early as December 1866, initially about Barnum’s practice of feeding live prey to snakes, but soon Bergh was confronting Barnum about elephant use and misuse too. An 1884 confrontation described by The New York Times involved Barnum’s use of a skin-whitening bleach designed for sale to African Americans to change a grey elephant into an alleged sacred white elephant.
Ringling in 1968 bought out the Harry Williams circus to acquire trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, a pioneer of positive reinforcement training, who directed the Ringling animal acts until his retirement in 1998. Protest against Ringling during Gebel-Williams’ tenure focused on the general issue of animal exploitation, rather than specific allegations of abuse.
In 1999, however, the Performing Animal Welfare Society brought complaints of abuse by former Ringling workers to the attention of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. USDA-APHIS veterinarian Ron DeHaven, who later headed the agency, reported that “There is sufficient evidence to confirm the handling of these animals caused unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort.”
Summarized Rizzotti of Good Magazine, “In 2004, the USDA finally suggested an $11,000 penalty against Ringling for excessive chaining and whipping when a video surfaced of an injured Ringling elephant being abused by a handler.” However, Rizzotti continued, “Even with PETA and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s support, the case hit a dead end.”
Feld Entertainment meanwhile hired the private security firm Richlin Consultants to infiltrate and disrupt PAWS and PETA . The $8.8 million operation, underway from 1989 until 1992, was directed by Clair E. George, who had been deputy director of operations for the Central Intelligence Agency from July 1984 through December 1987.
The infiltrations came to light when one of as many as 16 spies placed within PAWS, PETA, In Defense of Animals, the Elephant Alliance, and other animal advocacy organizations allegedly tried to sell their secrets to PAWS founder Pat Derby. Derby sued Feld Entertainment in June 2000. Feld reportedly settled the case by agreeing to retire several circus elephants to the PAWS sanctuary and fund their upkeep.
PETA sued Feld Entertainment over the infiltration in 2001, and again in an amended complaint in 2002, but a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury on March 15 found Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment not guilty of illegally conspiring to harm PETA.