Thursday, January 8, 2009

Unlikely Hero Gives Voice To Elephants Who Can't Voice Their Own Complaints

At first glance, you wouldn't necessarily peg Tom Rider as a guy speaking up for animals and educating the public in the process.

I mean, he doesn't cut the dashing figure of, say, Wayne Pacelle, the handsome, dapper honcho of the Humane Society of The U.S.

Rider's rounder, more rumpled.

But heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and many would say that Rider, who was my guest on the Jan. 7 edition of "Talking Animals," has done heroic work on behalf of circus elephants--particularly those forced to sing for their supper in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus--for many years.

In 1997, Rider went to work for Ringling caring for the elephants, and over the course of a two 1/2 year stint, became a whistleblower after witnessing the daily abuse of those pacyhderms. That abuse involved the elephants being immobilized by chains for most of the day (often unchained only long enough to perform), and for even longer periods in the trains that transport the Ringling units, which means the elephants are forced to stand for hours in their own waste.

Worse--as has been widely documented in video pieces and by Rider (who reiterated this in our interview) and other Ringling whistleblowers--these wonderful, intelligent, complex creatures are repeatedly beaten with an ankus or bullhook which is heavy and club-like and has a pointy, sharp tip. Imagine a heavy and sharp fireplace poker. (I've done a Ringling-related show each year since I launched "Talking Animals" in 2003, and I've written on this topic for The Huffington Post and elsewhere.)

Tom Rider is now a central figure in a federal lawsuit brought against Ringling by multiple animal groups (including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [ASPCA], The Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Animal Protection Institute ) for mistreatment of the elephants under the Endangered Species Act.

That suit is slated to resume--some would say commence-- February 3 in Washington, DC.

In an odd intersection of heroic with nomadic, Rider essentially lives in his 80s Volkswagen bus, traveling to where one of the Ringling units is performing, making himself available to local media types and anyone else interested in hearing the dark truth about the life of circus animals.

Filling this role ain't exactly a get-rich scheme. Indeed, it would appear that Rider maintains a hand-to-mouth existence.

Joined by his daughter, whom he's been visiting in recent days, he had driven a considerable distance to join me in-studio for the "Talking Animals" interview, but wasn't sticking around for opening night of Ringling's Tampa engagement because his VW bus has a bum starter he can't afford to get fixed and he didn't want to get stranded in the dark, especially with rain forecast for the evening.

I offered to take them to lunch after the show--under the circumstances, seemed like the least I could do--but he politely declined, mostly because they needed to get back so his daughter could sort out a problem with her food stamps.

So, again, it's safe to say that speaking for the elephants--and against Ringling--has not served as a lucrative gambit for Rider. It's just something he feels compelled to do. As he noted in our interview, he plans to walk into that courtroom Feb. 3 and testify under oath, in large part because none of the affected elephants (even the ones still alive) can do so.

Those elephants will have a very forceful surrogate in that witness box.

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