SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A star Ringling Bros. circus trainer was acquitted Friday of a charge he abused an elephant outside a performance last summer, ending a trial watched closely by animal rights groups.
The jury deliberated for about two hours before clearing Mark Oliver Gebel, 31, whose defense attorney did not call a single witness. Gebel could have faced six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Gebel, the son of legendary Ringling Bros. animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, smiled faintly as the verdict was read.
"We're proud of the way we work with our animals. I inherited it from my father," he said outside the courtroom. "Our animals are never mistreated or abused."
The case was important to animal rights groups that for years have accused Ringling Bros. and other circuses of using a wholesome front to mask their cruel treatment of animals. Few criminal charges against circus performers have resulted, however.
After the verdict, disappointed activists said the Gebel case was only the beginning and urged more people to carry video recorders whenever the circus comes to town.
"It's happening everyday," said Deniz Bolbol, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Cruelty-free Circuses. The circuses "don't want anyone to know because they're making millions of dollars every day on the backs of these animals."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey owner Kenneth Feld, who sat through the trial alongside Gebel's mother, portrayed the case as a desperate attempt by anti-circus extremists to tarnish the company's reputation.
Because of Gebel's famous heritage, he also was about as prominent a defendant as the circus world could produce. His father, who died in July, was a Ringling star for 21 years.
Gebel allegedly used a straight prong on a hooked stick known as an ankus to jab an elephant named Asia, who was moving too slowly into a performance on Aug. 25 in San Jose.
A police sergeant and a Humane Society investigator said they heard Gebel yell and saw him lunge at the elephant, though they did not see him make contact with it. Those witnesses and another Humane Society investigator said they saw a blood stain the size of a nickel on Asia's leg after the show.