WASHINGTON D.C.––The Humane Society of the U.S. and codefendants “have paid Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, $15.75 million to settle cases stemming from a lawsuit they brought against Ringling over the care of its Asian elephants,” Feld Entertainment announced on May 15, 2014.
Confirmed HSUS president Wayne Pacelle in a blog posting, “Today, to avoid incurring additional legal fees in a case that at this stage could bring no good outcome for elephants, 12 parties decided to settle” with Ringling.” The $15.75 million settlement, Pacelle stipulated, was in addition to $9.3 million paid to Ringling by the American SPCA in December 2012.
The combined Ringling settlements of just over $25 million exceed the annual budgets of all but about a dozen of the approximately 10,000 active U.S. animal advocacy and rescue societies.
“I am sure it pains every animal protection advocate to think that Feld gets any money from animal protection groups,” Pacelle acknowledged. “I want to assure every HSUS donor that in the end, not one penny of your dollars will go to Feld. Fortunately, insurance proceeds are expected to cover a substantial portion, if not all, of the contributions from the Fund for Animals and HSUS toward the collective settlement by a dozen parties. What insurance doesn’t cover, the Fund will pay, but we hope it’s a very small sum or none at all.”
Said the Feld statement, “HSUS and animal rights groups the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), the Wildlife Advocacy Project, the law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, and several current and former attorneys of that firm, paid the settlement for their involvement in a case brought under the Endangered Species Act that the U.S. District Court ruled was ‘frivolous,’ ‘vexatious,’ and ‘groundless and unreasonable from its inception.’ Today’s settlement also covers the related Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act case that Feld Entertainment filed against the groups after discovering they had paid a plaintiff for his participation in the original lawsuit and then attempted to conceal those payments.”
Ringling lost ankus fight in Los Angeles
The settlement with HSUS et al came just over two weeks after Ringling failed to dissuade the Los Angeles City Council from unanimously passing a ban on the use of the ankus, also known as the “elephant hook” or “bullhook,” along with the use of other goading devices that might be used to control elephants and other performing animals. Introduced in 2013 by council member Paul Koretz, the ban won final approval on April 30, 2014. It will not actually take effect until January 2017, “to give circuses time to change how they handle elephants or remove them from the shows, which draw audiences of 100,000,” explained Reuters correspondent Dana Feldman.
Responded Ringling spokesperson Stephen Payne, “Our elephants are the number one reason people come…We’re not just going to drop them off when we play Los Angeles. We’re not going to come to L.A. without our elephants. The Asian elephant has been a symbol of Ringling for 144 years.”
Said Koretz, “The circus is welcome in Los Angeles, just without the bullhooks. We’re hoping that they follow the model of other circuses that don’t use exotic animals.”
The Los Angeles Zoo claims to have discontinued use of the ankus after a $42 million new elephant exhibit opened in 2010. The exhibit uses a “protected contact” design that mostly keeps staff out of proximity to the elephants. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John L. Segal ordered that the ankus and other goads not be used again in a 56-page July 2012 verdict that settled litigation against the zoo filed in 2007 by realtor Aaron Leider and actor Robert Culp, who died in 2010.
Background to the settlement
Ringling is expected to seek another performance venue somewhere near Los Angeles but outside the city limits. What venue might be available and large enough, however, is unclear.
If Ringling bypasses Los Angeles because of the ankus ban, the first in any major U.S. city, the annual cost to the circus might approximately equal the payout in the settlements with HSUS, the ASPCA, et al.
The Endangered Species Act case leading to the settlements, filed in 2000, was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on the last day of 2009. The Feld Entertainment RICO case against HSUS, the ASPCA, and coplaintiffs was filed in 2007.
“The Court decided the Endangered Species Act case on the issue of standing, and never ruled on the merits of the elephant abuse allegations,” said then-ASPCA president Ed Sayres in announcing the December 2012 ASPCA settlement. Arriving at the ASPCA three years after the case was filed, Sayres retired in July 2013, succeeded by current ASPCA president Matthew Bershadker.
Co-plaintiffs in the original case were the ASPCA, the Fund for Animals, and the Animal Welfare Institute, with former Ringling elephant barn worker Tom Rider as an individual plaintiff. Their initial 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 Cathy Liss, who was AWI executive director in 2000 and succeeded Stevens as president, and Mike Markarian, who was national director for the Fund for Animals in 2000, and since 2005 has headed the Fund as an HSUS subsidiary. Markarian also heads the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
Presiding over seven other major Endangered Species Act cases since 2002, Judge Sullivan had always before ruled for the plaintiffs, including HSUS and AWI. 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’s case against the defendant animal charities, but allowed it to proceed.
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’s 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.”
Summarized Rizzotti of Good Magazine, “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 Animals, 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.
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 42 elephants, down from 54 circa 2008.
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