TNT’s Ringling Reality Series: Sickest Show On Earth?

Posted April 11, 2008 | 05:17 PM (EST)

I read with great interest — and greater horror — that one component of TNT’s new plan to expand the network’s slate of original programming is an unscripted series set aboard the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train that transports the performers and animals from show to show.

That sound you’re hearing may be the bottom of the barrel scraping — or it could be the moaning of an elephant being abused.

Sure, the unscripted-series barrel has been dredged ever deeper over the years, so that, now, darn near anything constitutes a reality show. If you’re intrigued by, say, who Chef Ramsay will next scream at, or which young lady will be selected to rock Bret Michaels’ world, hey, Godspeed.

Similarly, I certainly can’t keep you from watching this forthcoming TNT program about Ringling entitled, predictably enough, The Greatest Show On Earth. And I’m mindful that criticizing any sort of work–particularly if fueled by moral outrage — before seeing, reading, hearing that work is the province of the lunkhead.

But I don’t really seek to criticize this TNT series, and my outrage toward Ringling isn’t particularly elevated after hearing about the show — it’s always pretty damn high.

In answer to the question that must’ve popped up right about now — who the hell is this guy? — I’m a father, a passionate animal lover, and host of “Talking Animals,” a radio program about animals I launched in 2003 on KUCI in Irvine, CA and now airs on WMNF, an NPR station in Tampa, FL.

So, here are some defining Ringling Bros. traits that, even allowing for the often-altered reality of reality show, may lend this new TNT series an undercurrent of darkness.

Ringling has a long record of animal abuse, most notoriously toward its elephants, which spend most of their time shackled in chains or squeezed into boxcars. Aboard the circus train – -center stage of the new series, remember — boxcars are often cramped, poorly ventilated, and the elephants stand for long stretches chained in their own waste.

Their training is fear-driven, revolving around punishing and hurting the animals. The main weapon of education is the bull hook, or ankus — picture a heavy, sharp fireplace poker — and the trainers hit the elephants, often repeatedly, with the bull hook in various parts of their body, so that they comply, so they “learn.” These scenes should make for some terrific television.

If you simply find it impossible to believe what I’m saying about Ringling’s routine animal abuse, no offense taken. It is almost too horrific to believe.

But a few minutes of online research — start by Googling such innocuous words as “circus” and “animals” – -will yield a torrent of verifying results, documents, references to lawsuits against Ringling for their mistreatment of the elephants (including numerous former employees serving as whistleblowers) and spools of footage, undercover and otherwise. Regarding footage, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite the award-winning piece on Ringling and its abuse of Asian elephants by veteran television journalist and frequent Huffington Post contributor Leslie Griffith, who has won nine local Emmys and two Edward R. Murrow Awards.

I guess I’m also curious about how the new series will present the information that Ringling owner Kenneth Feld has known for more than a decade that many of its elephants have M-tuberculosis — the same kind of tuberculosis carried by and transmitted to humans — and that these elephants are allowed to tour (hey, more fascinating stories aboard the train) and to perform.

“The show must go on” adage takes on a complex new dimension when the show in question is posing a public health threat of, well, elephantine proportions.

Oh, sure, Feld and his lieutenants may tell you, on camera or otherwise, that elephants with TB are pulled from the show — from the train — and quarantined. The problem is that one can’t accurately diagnose an elephant with TB while he or she is alive — so-called “trunk washings” are imprecise, and, as you might imagine, it’s a little impractical to give a chest x-ray to an elephant.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this TB information, too, seems improbable. But Feld and his team are brilliant at marketing, and part of their genius is the deft way they get into bed with media outlets–one upshot is that you almost never see tough, much less investigative, reporting on Ringling.

Again, it will take you mere minutes of research to verify the TB situation, and once more I refer you to the work of Leslie Griffith, the journalist I think has done the best reporting on Ringling in recent years: This written piece includes e-mails and memos by veterinarians and USDA investigators expressing concern over TB in Ringling elephants.

Gosh, endemic animal abuse and exposing audiences to TB seem to amount to blights on Ringling’s carefully-cultivated image as family entertainment. But I hope I don’t seem too cynical if I predict these elements may not get tremendous airplay on the TNT series.

Perhaps they’ll get their due attention in another TV project or documentary film on Ringling — may I suggest a working title of “The Sickest Show On Earth” ??