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Ex-trainer accuses circus of elephant cruelty

Circus's training of baby elephants spurs a head-to-head battle with PETA over treatment.
Image: A baby elephant being trained at Ringling's breeding center
A baby elephant is seen being trained at Ringling's breeding center. Courtesy of Sam Haddock via PETA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sammy Haddock started working with elephants when he joined the circus at 20, in 1976, a young man's dream. He walked them, groomed them, cleaned up after them. More than once, he later confessed, he beat them.

Over time, his feelings about elephants grew more tender, especially toward the babies. In 1997 he was hired to work as a handler at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Center for Elephant Conservation, an ambitious program in Florida to breed and preserve endangered Asian elephants. Part of Haddock's job was to help train elephant calves to be circus performers.

He was deeply affected when 8-month-old Riccardo collapsed with leg injuries after tumbling off a tub during pre-training in 2004. Riccardo had to be euthanized. Haddock also began to see things from the point of view of his wife, Millie, an animal lover.

Nearly two years ago, Millie lay dying of complications from diabetes. Sammy had retired from the circus in 2005 to care for her. She asked him for a promise.

"My wife never liked what the elephants went through at the circus, especially the baby elephants, or that I was a part of it," Haddock said recently in a written declaration. "Before she died, she told me, 'Sammy, I know you'll do the right thing.' "

Now Haddock's dramatic interpretation of doing "the right thing" is being unleashed -- from the grave. He died early last month in Clermont, Fla., at 53, of liver failure. He left behind scores of pictures and a written recollection of his workplace. They offer a compelling glimpse into the treatment of baby circus elephants. It veers from the image propagated by the industry -- of little creatures contentedly acquiring nimble new moves in return for carrots and grapes.

Dead men do tell tales.

But what about pictures? Do pictures speak for themselves?

The point of bullhooks
Last spring, Samuel Dewitt Haddock Jr. brought his story and his snapshots to Debbie Leahy, director of captive animals rescue and enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA and Ringling are old and bitter adversaries. PETA wants the animal acts shut down. Ringling has accused PETA of distorting its record of animal husbandry.

Haddock was a hard-bitten country boy, 5-foot-10 and lean, a real character. He was an unusual whistle-blower for PETA. He was a meat eater and a dove hunter. He didn't go undercover and secretly snap images on a spy camera. He was just a guy taking pictures at work.

In a 15-page notarized declaration, dated Aug. 28, before he took sick, Haddock describes how, in his experience at Ringling's conservation center, elephant calves were forcibly separated from their mothers. How up to four handlers at a time tugged hard on ropes to make babies lie down, sit up, stand on two legs, salute, do headstands. All the public's favorite tricks.

His photos show young elephants trussed in ropes as bullhooks are pressed to their skin. A bullhook is about the length of a riding crop. The business end is made of steel and has two tips, one hooked and one coming to a blunt nub.

An elephant trainer is rarely without a bullhook. The tool is also standard in many zoos, including the National Zoo. In recent years, for public consumption, elephant handlers have taken to calling them "guides."

Most of Haddock's pictures are at least seven years old. This summer, Leahy shot a video of Haddock in his living room, leafing through a photo album. He jabs one picture with a thick forefinger. He says it shows ropes used to pull a baby elephant off balance, while a bullhook is applied to its head, in order to train it to lie down on command.

"The baby elephant is slammed to the ground," Haddock says. "See its mouth is wide open? It's screaming bloody murder. It doesn't have its mouth open for a carrot."

Ringling officials confirm that the pictures are genuine images of activity at its elephant conservation center. But they dispute Haddock's and PETA's interpretations of what is taking place. For example, they say, the bullhooks are being used merely to give light touches or "cues," accompanied by verbal commands and tasty rewards; the babies' mouths are open not to scream but to receive a treat.

"These are classic pictures of professional elephant-training," said Gary Jacobson, director of elephant care and head trainer at the conservation center. ". . . This is the most humane way."

He is featured in numerous pictures, using his bullhook. He reviewed 70 of Haddock's images during a lengthy interview earlier this month at the 200-acre center in rural Polk City, Fla. He said he has many of the same photos in his own albums at home, courtesy of Haddock.

"The last thing they're afraid of is me, these little elephants," said Jacobson, a stout man of 59, with intense blue eyes and a silver mustache.

Ringling officials also say that portions of Haddock's declaration are inaccurate or outdated. For example, Jacobson said, elephants aren't "slammed to the ground" when being trained with ropes to lie down. Rather, the animals are stretched out so their bellies are close to the soft sand, and they are rolled over.

Now Haddock's material has opened a new front in the elephant wars pitting animal rights groups against the circus industry. Once again in the center ring is Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, based in Vienna, Va. It is one of the world's leading producers of live acts, with three touring circus shows and such productions as "Disney Live!" and "Disney on Ice."

"This is the first time that the violent training methods used on baby elephants have been exposed in the United States, and with the biggest circus in the country," Leahy said. "When someone like Sam Haddock says there's a problem with what's going on here, it's from the perspective of someone who lived through it and participated in it. . . . It totally contradicts what the circus has been telling the public for years."

Federal complaint filed
PETA used Haddock's material to file a complaint earlier this month with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. PETA provided The Washington Post with copies of the photos, a 17-minute video interview with Haddock and a copy of his notarized declaration. PETA alleges that Haddock's photos and statements show violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The group seeks to have Feld's exhibitor license revoked.

USDA inspectors will assess the information to determine whether to launch an investigation, said an agency spokesman.

"When they contact us we will cooperate fully," said Amy McWethy, director of communications for Feld.

PETA's action comes as a decision is pending from Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in U.S. District Court in Washington regarding a separate, nine-year legal battle between Feld and a former employee, and four other animal rights groups. That case centers on the care of several older performing elephants.

For nearly all of human history, these highly intelligent, largest of land animals have been figures of fascination and function, drafted for service in transportation, warfare, construction, pageantry and entertainment. The first elephant imported to the United States arrived in the 1790s and was promptly put on exhibit. By the mid-1800s, they were popular circus performers.

Whatever one's interpretation of Haddock's images, they are powerful. Baby elephants are 1,500 pounds of pure cuteness. The public is not used to seeing them immobilized with ropes, while sticks with metal hooks are brandished in their vicinity. Ringling officials know Haddock's images may pose a public relations challenge, even as they defend them.

"They are taken out of context," McWethy said.

"We'll let the pictures speak for themselves, and let the public decide whether these baby elephants were being tormented," Leahy said.

Humane is one thing, human is another. What led a hardened veteran elephant handler to go rogue on his own industry?

Jacobson first hired Haddock back in about 1978 for an elephant show in a Nevada casino. "I still can't believe Sammy would do this," Jacobson said. "He was always a stand-up guy. . . . What does it say about humanity?"

A change of heart
Haddock was a reluctant ally.

"He felt really conflicted when he first contacted us," Leahy said. "He was worried about what his circus buddies would think of him."

By August, Haddock had resolved to go public. Leahy said she helped draft the declaration based on hours of interviews with him, but he had final approval. PETA thought it had a dynamite witness to trot before reporters, regulators and legislators. Then Haddock's illness was diagnosed, and within weeks he was dead.

A dead man can't be cross-examined. A dead man can't be asked follow-up questions.

Haddock and his wife had no children. But family members and a friend verified parts of Haddock's story in interviews with The Post.

"Sammy said there were things he didn't approve of down at that elephant farm. There were things about the way they were trained," said Larry Haddock, an older brother. "He loved those elephants."

"Sammy just hated the separation of the mothers and the babies, for one," said Kaylene Stevens, an old friend from Haddock's circus youth. "He said it was gut-wrenching."

When Haddock decided to go public with PETA, "I was proud of him, but I was shocked," she said. "That was like turning against your brothers."

Haddock was a bit wild, by all accounts. He was convicted of burglary in 1974, at 18, two years before he joined the circus, according to public records. In 1994, he was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm.

Two egregious examples of poor animal care alleged in Haddock's declaration were committed by Haddock himself. It's as if he felt the need to call himself to account if he was going to do likewise to his colleagues.

On a Ringling tour in 1977, Haddock said, a bull elephant knocked him unconscious. In revenge, he grabbed an electric prod "and fried him for about ten minutes. He was screaming and regurgitating water." A year later at a Ringling circus park, another bull knocked him over. He beat the elephant with a bullhook for 15 minutes. The elephant "was screaming bloody murder."

"We have no way to corroborate that," McWethy said of the alleged beatings.

"A bullhook was never referred to as a 'guide,' " Haddock asserts in his declaration. "The bullhook is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only, to inflict pain and punishment. I should know, I used to make them."

The pangs of separation
Gary Jacobson shakes his head. "Ridiculous."

He sits at a table in a classroom at Ringling's Florida center and sifts through Haddock's photos with cracked, calloused hands.

"This guy is coming back from the grave on some of this," he says. "It's bizarre I would be sitting here looking at Sammy's pictures. He was always with it, and for it," the job of training elephants. "He did a fair job with them."

Jacobson has worked with elephants nearly all his adult life. He trained nine of the 22 elephants that tour with Ringling, and he helped rear all 22 calves born in captivity to Ringling elephants. "They're a lot like people," he says. "They're fascinating to watch and deal with."

Ringling proudly cites the conservation center as exemplifying the highest standard of elephant husbandry and research. In the barns, paddocks and pastures, nearly 30 elephants are in residence. The fact that Ringling has accomplished 22 births in captivity -- including second-generation births of babies to parents that were themselves born in captivity -- is a sign that "the biological and social needs of the individual animals are being appropriately addressed," said Mike Keele, acting director of the Oregon Zoo, who is active in efforts to preserve Asian elephants.

A significant phase in a calf's life is the separation from its mother. In his declaration Haddock described a brutal procedure:

"When pulling 18-24-month-old babies, the mother is chained against the wall by all four legs. Usually there's 6 or 7 staff that go in to pull the baby rodeo style. . . . Some mothers scream more than others while watching their babies being roped. . . . The relationship with their mother ends."

One of his pictures shows four recently weaned elephants tethered in a barn, no mothers in sight.

Jacobson picks up the image. "That was before the turn of the century," he says, referring to the late 1990s. He says he practiced "cold-break weaning," or abrupt separation from the mother, only when a set of mothers back then wouldn't let their calves be trained in their presence.

"I separate them slowly now," he says, and only when the calves demonstrate natural independence, from 18 to 22 months, but as late as when they are 3 years old.

"When you separate the calves, they thrash around a bit," Jacobson says. "They miss their mother for about three days, and that's it."

In the wild, calves don't venture from their mothers' side until the age of 5 or 6, said Phyllis Lee of the University of Stirling in Scotland, a specialist in baby animal behavior who studies elephants. She likened the accelerated separation in the circus to a kind of "orphaning": "It's extremely stressing for the baby elephant. . . . It's traumatic for the mother."

Ropes are a big part of training. Haddock said in his declaration: "The babies fight to resist having the snatch rope put on them, until they eventually give up. . . . As many as four adult men will pull on one rope to force the elephant into a certain position."

Jacobson scrutinizes the photos of ropes and chain tethers. He points out the precautions that he says he takes. Thick, white doughnut-shaped sleeves are on one baby's feet. That's hospital fleece, he says, to make the restraints as soft as possible.

"If you didn't use the rope, you'd have to use the stick," Jacobson says. "This way we use the carrot and the rope."

Weighing up to a ton, a young elephant is strong. That's why so many handlers are working on each at the same time, Jacobson says. It's a credit to Feld's resources that so many people can focus on one elephant pupil, he says.

"On the third day [of training a new trick], there are no ropes on them anymore," he adds. "It goes very, very quickly."

In another photo, Jacobson is holding a black object about the size of a cellphone close to an elephant lying on the ground. Haddock said the device is an electric prod known as a "hot-shot."

"It's possible I could be holding one there," Jacobson says. "They're not used as a specific training tool. There are occasions when they would be used."

(McWethy said a hot-shot would be used only if necessary to prevent harm to animals or handlers.)

In several photos, Jacobson touches elephants' feet with a bullhook to get them to lift their legs. He touches the back of an elephant's neck to get it to stretch out. From the photos, it's impossible to tell how much pressure he is applying.

"You cue the elephant," he says. "You're not trying to frighten this animal -- you're trying to train this animal."

He adds: "You say 'foot,' you touch it with a hook, a guy pulls on a rope and somebody on the other side immediately sticks a treat in their mouth. It takes about 20 minutes to train an elephant to pick up all four feet."

Bottom line, says Jacobson: It's not in Ringling's interest to mistreat the elephants. "These things are worth a tremendous amount of money. They're irreplaceable."

Bonds or bondage?
Jacobson leaves Haddock's pictures on the table and goes out to a paddock where 13-month-old Sundara is nuzzling her mother, Sally. The trainer offers mother and calf handfuls of white bread and banana leaves as an afternoon snack. Sundara trots eagerly to Jacobson, waving her trunk, then retreats to the shelter of her mother's bulk, then pops out again, sassy and adorable.

What are the elephants thinking, feeling? Is it something akin to fear? Affection? Resignation? Indifference? Contentment? Who knows. Some say elephants have sophisticated emotional lives that are twisted by being forced to entertain humans. Others say they thrive in well-designed training programs to perform maneuvers they might naturally do anyway.

Jacobson remembers one of the last times he saw Haddock. It was eight months ago. The retired handler came bearing a gift that only another old elephant pro could truly treasure.

"He brought me a real nice guide," Jacobson says appreciatively. "One of the nicest ones I ever had."

A few months after delivering that present, Haddock said in his declaration: "Toward the end of my career . . . I stopped telling people what I did for a living. I was ashamed."

Staff researchers Eddy Palanzo and Julie Tate contributed to this report.