ASPCA pays Ringling $9.3 million to end litigation after losing bid to = halt use of elephants

From ANIMAL PEOPLE Jan-Feb 2013

NEW YORK CITY —The American SPCA on December 28, 2012 announced that it has paid $9.3 million to Feld Entertainment Inc., producer of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to settle two federal court cases originating from allegations that Ringling abuses elephants, thereby violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The parties filed dismissal papers today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as a result of their settlement, announced Feld Entertainment, headquartered in Vienna, Virginia. The settlement covers only Feld Entertainment claims against the ASPCA for attorneys=92 fees and damages in the initial Endangered Species Act case filed in 2000,=94 dismissed by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on the last day of 2009, plus a 2007 countersuit filed by Feld against the ASPCA and coplaintiffs under the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The Court decided the underlying Endangered Species Act case filed by the ASPCA on the issue of standing, and never ruled on the merits of the elephant abuse allegations,=94 said ASPCA president Ed Sayres, who arrived at the ASPCA three years after the case was filed, and announced in July 2012 that he will retire upon selection of a successor. 

This litigation has stopped being about the elephants a long time ago, Sayres continued. After more than a decade of litigating with Feld Entertainment, the ASPCA concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation.,=94 Sayres concluded, in a prepared statement distributed by ASPCA senior vice president for communications Elizabeth J. Estroff.  Feld Entertainment stipulated that claims for litigation abuse and racketeering will continue against the remaining defendants in the 2007 RICO case, including the Humane Society of the U.S., the Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA, witness Tom Rider, and attorneys involved.

Now that the two main parties in this case have settled, responded HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, =93it=92s time to get back to the important debate about the ethics of the abusive training and control methods used by circuses upon their elephants. While The Humane Society of the United States was not a party to the original case against Ringling, Pacelle said, we agree with so many critics of  the circus that its treatment of elephants is deplorable and unacceptable. HSUS will continue to speak up for elephants, even as Ringling resorts to retaliatory legal actions that divert and distract from the fundamental, underlying issue of its treatment of elephants. Fewer than 25 U.S. animal charities have annual budgets greater than the $9.3 million that the ASPCA paid to Feld Entertainment. The ASPCA, with annual income of about $125 million, is the second largest U.S. animal advocacy organization, trailing only HSUS, which has revenues of circa $160 million.

Despite the exit of the ASPCA from the case, =93It=92s all very much alive,=94 HSUS president Wayne Pacelle told ANIMAL PEOPLE. The ASPCA, the Fund for Animals, and the Animal Welfare Institute filed the original case, with former Ringling elephant barn worker Tom Rider as an individual plaintiff. Their complaint was dismissed in 2001 after a judicial ruling that they lacked legal standing to proceed, but was reinstated on appeal in 2003. The appellate verdict required Rider, who worked for Ringling in 1997-1999, to establish that he was injured in some manner by Ringling treatment of elephants.

Meanwhile, AWI president Christine Stevens, who founded AWI in 1952, died in October 2002. Sayres succeeded then-ASPCA president Larry Hawk in June 2003. HSUS inherited the lawsuit against Ringling when it absorbed the Fund for Animals at the end of 2005. The Animal Protection Institute joined the case in 2006, bringing the Born Free Foundation into it when Born Free absorbed API at the end of 2007. By then the only senior executives at any of the plaintiff organizations who were involved from the start were AWI executive director Cathy Liss, who had succeeded Stevens as president, and Mike Markarian, national director for the Fund for Animals in 2000, who has headed the Fund as an HSUS subsidiary since 2005. Markarian also heads the Humane Society Legislative Fund. Presiding over seven other major Endangered Species Act cases since 2002, Judge Sullivan had ruled for the plaintiffs, including some of the same plaintiffs, in every one. But, after a six-week trial in 2009, Sullivan in a 57-page verdict slammed the plaintiffs—especially Rider, who had been paid at least $190,000 by the ASPCA while the case proceeded.

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, Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan in July 2012 narrowed Feld Entertainment case against the defendant animal charities, but allowed it to proceed. While Feld Entertainment chair Kenneth Feld claimed the ASPCA settlement as a vindication, media perspectives tended to see it as more a Pyrrhic victory, which may have cost the Ringling image more than it gained.

Even with this victory for Ringling, evidence of three-ringed animal cruelty continues to mount,=94 assessed David Wagner for the Atlantic Wire.

An old dispute

The Ringling RICO case is only the latest of conflicts which erupted almost as soon as sea captain Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant seen in the Americas since the ice ages to New York City on April 13, 1796. Customs inspector Nataniel Hathorne, father of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who spelled his name differently), logged the arrival. Crowninshield sold the elephant to farmer Hackaliah Bailey, of Somers, New York, who formed the ancestor of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus and toured the east coast for 20 years. The elephant was shot by a religious fanatic in either Maine or Rhode Island (accounts differ) in 1816. Clergy from New England to the Carolinas had  denounced Bailey circus, chiefly as a distraction from churchgoing, but sometimes also as cruel exploitation of the animals.

In 1850, recalled Good Magazine associate features editor Alessandra Rizzotti, P.T. Barnum founded his Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum, and Menagerie. He hired native assistants in Sri Lanka to capture the magnificent wild animals and bring them back to America. Barnum wrote in an autobiography that the expedition killed large numbers of the huge beasts, but 11 live elephants endured a 12,000-mile voyage to New York City.

One elephant died during the voyage. The survivors eventually became part of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. American SPCA founder Henry Bergh clashed with Barnum as early as December 1866, initially about Barnum’s practice of feeding live prey to snakes, but soon Bergh was confronting Barnum about elephant use and misuse too. An 1884 confrontation described by The New York Times involved Barnum’s use of a skin-whitening bleach designed for sale to African Americans to  change a grey elephant into an alleged sacred white elephant.

Ringling in 1968 bought out the Harry Williams circus to acquire trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, a pioneer of positive reinforcement training, who directed the Ringling animal acts until his retirement in 1998. Protest against Ringling during Gebel-Williams tenure focused on the general issue of animal exploitation, rather than specific allegations of abuse. In 1999, however, the Performing Animal Welfare Society brought complaints of abuse by former Ringling workers to the attention of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. USDA-APHIS veterinarian Ron DeHaven, who later headed the agency, reported that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the handling of these animals caused unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort.

In 2004, the USDA finally suggested an $11,000 penalty against Ringling for excessive chaining and whipping when a video surfaced of an injured Ringling elephant being abused by a handler. However, Rizzotti continued. Even with PETA and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s support, the case hit a dead end.

Feld Entertainment meanwhile hired the private security firm Richlin Consultants to infiltrate and disrupt PAWS and PETA . The $8.8 million operation, underway from 1989 until 1992, was directed by  Clair E. George, who had been deputy director of operations for the Central Intelligence Agency from July 1984 through December 1987. The infiltrations came to light when one of as many as 16 spies = placed within PAWS, PETA, In Defense of Anmals, the Elephant Alliance, and other animal advocacy organizations allegedly tried to = sell their secrets to PAWS founder Pat Derby. Derby sued Feld = Entertainment in June 2000. Feld reportedly settled the case by = agreeing to retire several circus elephants to the PAWS sanctuary and = fund their upkeep. PETA sued Feld Entertainment over the infiltration = in 2001, and again in an amended complaint in 2002, but a Fairfax = County Circuit Court jury on March 15 found Kenneth Feld and Feld = Entertainment not guilty of illegally conspiring to harm PETA. =20 While Ringling has mostly won in court, the circus has = struggled to maintain a healthy elephant herd. Like other U.S. circuses = and zoos, Ringling has had little success at captive breeding, while = trying to contain tuberculosis outbreaks which are believed to have = afflicted about 12% of all the elephants in the U.S. Ringling currently = claims 45 elephants, down from 54 circa five years ago. Ringling has also been fighting from the Massachusetts state = legislature to the Los Angeles city council chambers to block proposals = to either ban the use of the ankus, also known as the =93elephant hook=94= or =93bullhook,=94 and/or to ban performances by elephants and other = exotic animals. =20 After inspecting a Ringling circus unit in July 2012, Los = Angeles Animal Services general manager Brenda Barnette presented seven = regulatory possibilities to the city council Personnel & Animal Welfare = Committee. The committee on November 21, 2012 recommended that the full = council should vote on proposals which would both ban the ankus and = prohibit exotic animal acts.


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