A star circus performer will rivet outraged animal lovers today when
he goes on trial in San Jose for allegedly gouging an elephant with a hooked
While critics have long protested that circus animals endure miserable
confinement and painful handling and training, the trial of Mark Oliver Gebel,
an elephant handler at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is a
rare criminal prosecution.
Animal rights advocates hope the prosecution will put some practices of
"The Greatest Show on Earth" on trial.
The case comes just months after the Santa Clara County district attorney's
office gained international attention by slapping a three-year prison sentence
on a motorist for killing a tiny dog named Leo in a fit of road rage. Like
that incident, a prosecutor said, the case involving Asia the elephant is
drawing an outpouring of e-mail calling for the defendant's hide.
"This is going to be a very interesting trial, mainly because it is
Ringling, which bills itself as the top-of-the-line circus, with the best
record, best resources, best treatment of animals," Richard Farinato, director
of captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States,
told the Associated Press. "This is pretty high-profile in the battle over
whether circuses should use wild animals."
Gebel, son of legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, is accused
of using an ankus -- a stick with a metal hook -- to strike the female Asian
elephant when she hesitated before entering the ring at Compaq Center in San
Jose on Aug. 25, said Prosecutor Carolyn Powell. A San Jose police sergeant
and two Humane Society officers routinely monitoring the circus reported
seeing the elephant suddenly rush forward. The said they later found two
nickel-sized puncture wounds behind her left leg.
If convicted of misdemeanor elephant abuse, Gebel, 31, could face six
months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Defense attorney James McManis of San Jose said animal activists are
unfairly smearing Gebel to advance their crusade against performing animals.
"He didn't do it," McManis said yesterday. "I think they've been after the
circus for years. He's the unfortunate victim of their quest."
McManis maintained that the Humane Society officer merely found a "red spot
of something on the side of the animal and decided the animal had been jabbed
in some manner. There's no evidence of injury -- no breaking of the skin, no
scarring. The circus veterinarian was called to examine the animal and
couldn't find evidence of injury."
But a Humane Society statement said that in recent years, several former
Ringling Bros. elephant workers have made sworn statements, accusing the
circus of routinely using the ankus and beating animals to force them to
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture accused Ringling of forcing an
ill elephant named Kenny to perform before he could be examined by a
veterinarian, according to the Associated Press. Kenny died, and Ringling's
parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc., settled the complaint by agreeing to
pay $20,000 to elephant-related causes.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle