SAN JOSE, Calif. -- To animal rights groups, Ringling Bros. circus owner Kenneth Feld is a secretly sinister force in the family entertainment business, a man they would love to bring down if they could.
Not only have critics claimed for years that circuses mistreat animals, they also have accused Feld himself of some outrageous conduct, such as spying on his opponents.
Now, after the recent acquittal in San Jose of a star Ringling trainer accused of elephant abuse, Feld is fighting back. In full-page newspaper ads this month, he told animal activists to back off.
"Use your money and resources where they are needed most, and stop targeting responsible animal care providers for political reasons," Feld wrote. "No one is more concerned with the well-being of animals than Ringling Bros."
As the head of Vienna, Va.-based Feld Entertainment Inc., Feld is the man behind the curtain at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Disney On Ice and Siegfried & Roy. He says 25 million people worldwide attend those shows each year.
Forbes magazine estimates the private company earned $80 million on $776 million in revenue in 2000, and that Feld himself is worth $780 million -- No. 333 on the list of the richest Americans.
Feld, 53, inherited the business from his father, Irvin, a music promoter who bought the 132-year-old circus from the Ringling family in 1967. He hopes to pass it on to his three daughters; the eldest, Nicole, 24, recently left People magazine to join the company.
"I have between the two circus units, 800 people on the road. I know every single one of them," Feld recently told The Associated Press. "I don't call it work. It's a way of life for me."
Some animal advocates cast Feld in a less wholesome light.
"We've kind of lifted the lid off the big top, and I think he's a man who's not used to being challenged," said Lisa Lange, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "He is scrambling."
Several groups say tigers, elephants and other wildlife should be eliminated from circuses because they are trained with brutal methods and excessively confined.
Ringling's record is not spotless. The company gave $20,000 to elephant causes in 1998 to settle U.S. Department of Agriculture allegations that an ill elephant was made to perform before he could be examined by a veterinarian. The animal died.
Opponents also cite a 1999 USDA report that found scars on two baby elephants who were chained in Ringling's Florida breeding facility, restricted from any movement but side-to-side swaying, as they were being separated from their mothers. Ringling disputes details of the report.
Feld says he welcomes the scrutiny of government inspections, and says he gives elephants better lives in captivity than they would have in the shrinking wild.
"They have a real purpose. It's like anyone else that has a job -- they get up in the morning, they have things to do," Feld said. "You can look at the animals. You do not get an 8,000-pound elephant to do something against its will."
He is especially proud that 12 endangered Asian elephants have been born at Ringling's breeding facility in the last nine years. Fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants are left in the world.
"What we're trying to do is preserve the species in any way that we can. Part of that goes to seeing the human-animal relationship," he said. "That's what we demonstrate at the Greatest Show on Earth."
Ringling carries a top-notch reputation among people who work with animals, said Chuck Doyle, curator of a zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., and director of the Elephant Managers Association, a group of handlers and trainers.
"If there was systematic abuse going on, it would be obvious," he said. "You can't be so high profile and flout the law. I can't believe that they are."
But opponents say circuses don't really engender respect for animals or promote conservation.
"Yes, they have a conservation facility and they breed elephants, but they're never going to be re-released back into the wild -- Ringling is breeding to continue to have a stock of elephants to perform," said Lisa Weisberg, head of government affairs for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The ASPCA and two other groups sued Ringling last April, seeking to require the circus to stop training animals in an abusive fashion. The groups cite former Ringling employees who say they witnessed routine beatings of elephants.
The case, which was dismissed but being appealed, is not the only one pending against Feld. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is suing him for allegedly hiring people to infiltrate the group and spy on its activities.
That case developed from a similar one brought by the Performing Animal Welfare Society, which was settled out of court. Ringling agreed to donate retired elephants to the group's sanctuary and pay for their care.
Feld describes the lawsuits -- and the recent San Jose case against trainer Mark Gebel, who was cleared of a charge that he wounded an elephant with a hooked stick -- as a campaign by activists to inflict "death by 1,000 cuts."
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