VIENNA, VA: Long the target of PR campaigns and publicity stunts
staged by animal rights activists, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
last week finally barked back, issuing an open letter about its
protesters' "disingenuous" tactics.
The missive, penned by the circus' chairman and producer Kenneth Feld,
appeared in ads in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and
unleashed a run of media coverage, providing opportunities for both
sides to press their cases on successive editions of NBC's Today
Feld's offensive was prompted by the recent trial of Mark Oliver Gebel,
star elephant handler for Ringling Bros. Last August, investigators from
the Humane Society of Santa Clara, CA brought misdemeanor charges
against Gebel for allegedly bloodying one of his elephants with a bull
hook. Gebel was later found not guilty.
Though prompted by the local Humane Society's action, Feld's write-up
never explicitly mentioned the organization, and instead singled out
PETA for its harshest criticisms. "There's no question that he wanted to
configure the debate as being between Ringling Bros. and an animal
rights group perceived to be a little more radical," said Wayne Pacelle,
SVP of the Humane Society. "They did not want to insert the name of the
Humane Society or any of its chapters because we are perceived to be
"From a PR viewpoint, it was probably the dumbest thing they could do,"
added Debbie Leahy, a captive animals specialist with PETA. "We've been
flooded with calls from reporters wanting our response, which has given
us many new chances to explain why we think circuses inherently abuse