The operators of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus have agreed to pay the largest-ever fine levied against an animal exhibitor to settle a probe into violations of the federal animal cruelty law.

The $270,000 settlement, announced last week, covers the period between 2007 and 2011. It requires all employees who work with animals to complete training in Animal Welfare Act compliance starting in March 2012. It also requires that the circus establish an Animal Welfare Act compliance position on its staff.

"This settlement sends a direct message to the public and to those who exhibit animals that USDA will take all necessary steps to protect animals regulated under the Animal Welfare Act," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. "The civil penalty and other stipulations in the settlement agreement will promote a better understanding of the rights and responsibilities of all exhibitors in maintaining and caring for animals under their care."

The statement did not specify the violations, but inspection reports indicate multiple maintenance issues at its animal retirement facility, as well as with travelling enclosures, including broken windows, protruding screws, gaps in fences that could lead to injuring or escape. There was a 2008 incident at a Baltimore venue that involved a zebra being improperly led through a partially open roll up door, though the report notes that the zebra was not harmed. There also were several incidents involving escaped animals who were later rounded up and a case where an elephant was briefly out of control during a show.

You can read thefull inspection reports here.

USDA licensed exhibitors must provide their animals with proper veterinary care, water, a balanced diet of wholesome food, clean and structurally sound housing that affords enough space for the animals to move comfortably, and protection from extremes in temperature and weather.

Feld Entertainment, which is set to produce the 142nd edition of the Ringling circus next year, said the agreement does not admit wrongdoing or violations.

"We look forward to working with the USDA in a cooperative and transparent manner that meets our shared goal of ensuring that our animals are healthy and receive the highest quality care," said Kenneth Feld, chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment. "Animal care is always a top priority at Ringling Bros. and we remain committed to complying with all requirements."

Ringling Bros. spends $6 million annually on its animal care, conservation and research, the company said in a statement. Ringling Bros. and its animal care staff firmly believe that performing animals, when properly cared for, live a rich and full life. The company has a team of world-renowned, accredited veterinarians offering 24/7 coverage to make sure that animals are well cared for and healthy.

It also maintains the largest "sustainable" herd of Asian elephants at its conservation facility in Florida with 23 births since 1995, said spokesman Stephen Payne. Other animals which perform in its three traveling circus companies include tigers and horses, as well as domestic cats and dogs.

The company said the agreement negates the need for a law banning animals in circuses. A bill was introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D., VA) to outlaw exotic or wild animals from performances if they have been traveling within the previous 15 days.