Long-pending Ringling elephant case is dismissed due to lack of standing
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2010:
WASHINGTON D.C.–U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on
December 31, 2009 ruled that former Ringling Bros. and Barnum &
Bailey Circus animal handler Tom Rider and a coalition of four animal
advocacy groups lack legal standing to pursue a nearly 10-year-old
case alleging that Ringling use of elephants violates the U.S.
Endangered Species Act.
Ringling has 54 Asian elephants, who are an endangered
species in the wild. About half of the Ringling elephants are on
tour at any given time, while the rest are at the Ringling captive
breeding facility in Florida.
The case was filed in 2000 by the American SPCA, the Animal
Welfare Institute, The Fund for Animals (merged into the Humane
Society of the U.S. in 2005), and the Animal Protection Institute
(merged with Born Free USA in 2007).
To win the case, the plaintiffs had to establish first that
they were in some manner sufficiently harmed by Ringling use of
elephants to have a right to bring the suit. However, wrote Sullivan
in a 57-page opinon, “The court finds that Mr. Rider is essentially
a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible, and therefore
affords no weight to his testimony.”
The advocacy groups were found to lack standing “on more
technical legal grounds,” summarized Del Quentin Wilbur of The
Washington Post. In essence, Sullivan found that they had no direct
material interest in the outcome.
“If Sullivan had found a violation of the Endangered Species
Act,” explained Wilbur, “Ringling Bros. would have had to stop the
practices in question or obtain an exemption from the Interior
But even if the plaintiffs had won standing, the case was
“the first ever brought under the Endangered Species Act to protect a
captive endangered species,” acknowledged the Animal Welfare
Institute, and depended upon making a persuasive argument for a
legally untested assertion that Ringling practices are detrimental to
the survival of Asian elephants. The plaintiffs had to prove that
Ringling practices either lead foreseeably to the deaths of elephants
in Ringling custody, or harm the existence of Asian elephants as a
Aware that winning the case in court would require expanding
the historical scope of the Animal Welfare Act, the plaintiffs
sought to put circus elephant use itself on trial in the court of
public opinion. The case was heavily covered for several years by
nationally distributed news media. Coverage focused on Ringling
elephant handlers’ use of the ankus (bullhook) and on prolonged
Feld Entertainment chief executive Kenneth Feld testified as
owner of the Ringling circus that all Ringling elephant handlers use
the ankus. Gary Jacobson, general manager of the Ringling breeding
farm in Florida, testified that most of the Ringling female
elephants “are kept chained on two legs for at least 16 hours a day
on concrete floors, and that some of them are kept on chains for
23.5 hours,” summarized an Animal Welfare Institute press release.
“The public now knows that Ringling Bros.’ Asian elephants
are systematically abused on a daily basis,” claimed AWI general
counsel, Tracy Silverman.
The Ringling ruling was Sullivan’s seventh in a major
Endangered Species Act case since 2002, and was the first to go
against plaintiff advocacy groups. He has ruled in the past against
speedboaters on behalf of Florida manatees, against snowmobilers on
behalf of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, and against the
U.S. Navy on behalf of wildlife on Farallon de Medinilla, a remote
Pacific island long used for bombing practice.