SAN JOSE, Calif., Dec. 21 (UPI) -- The first test of a California law protecting elephants from abuse by their human handlers ended late Friday with the acquittal of a circus trainer accused of beating one of his behemoth performers.
A Santa Clara County jury deliberated two hours before finding Mark Oliver Gebel, the star elephant trainer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, innocent of a misdemeanor charge that could have landed him in jail for up to six months.
"I knew it was going to turn out the right way," Gebel told reporters after the verdict was announced Friday afternoon. "This is what I do. I love what I do and why would I want to do something to harm my career and what I love doing."
Gebel, 31, the son of the late venerable Ringling Brothers trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, had been accused by members of the Humane Society of the United States of repeatedly striking a recalcitrant elephant named Asia with a hooked metal tool known as an ankus during a circus performance in San Jose last summer. The blows were alleged to have been hard enough to draw a small amount of blood.
According to the Ringling Brothers Web site, ringling.com, the ankus, also known as a bullhook, is "an extension of the trainer's arm" that has been used for thousands of years to steer the lumbering beasts, guide them through their paces in the circus ring, "or whenever a handler needs to get the direct attention of an elephant."
"For example, a touch on the side of the right leg with the command 'foot,' tells the elephant to lift its right foot forward," the site explained.
Although the alleged beating in San Jose apparently did not do any serious damage to the pachyderm, animal rights activists would have considered a guilty verdict in the case as vindication of their claims that circus animals are targets of abuse.
"This case has shined a national spotlight on the ongoing abuse of elephants by the circus industry," the organization said in a recent statement. "The Humane Society of the United States opposes the use of elephants in circuses because of the abusive training and handling techniques that must be used by trainers in order to maintain control over these powerful and intelligent wild animals."
California is the only state with a statute on its books specifically prohibiting the abuse of elephants.
Christine Berringer, the president of the society's San Jose chapter, said the verdict was "disappointing."
"It was a very cut and dry case," Berringer said. "Mark Gebel struck Asia (the elephant). He drew blood and he did it in a punishing manner, which is against the law."
Testimony in the two-day trial ended Thursday with the defense resting without calling any witnesses. The prosecution called five witnesses, including a San Jose police sergeant who said she saw Gebel advance on Asia backstage and then he "stabbed the elephant in the side with his ankus."
Sgt. Lanette Williams testified under cross-examination that she did not actually see the ankus make contact with the elephant's hide.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)