Endangered Species Act definitions changed while 15 cats were in U.S. on tour
ELLENTON, Florida; COTATI, California––The Animal Legal Defense Fund on May 25, 2017 let the world know via media release that it “strongly objects” to an application from the no longer performing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for a U.S. federal permit to return six African lions, eight Bengal tigers and an African leopard to the Circus Krone in Munich, Germany.
The ALDF stopped short, however, of promising specific legal action to try to block the transfer.
Property rights vs. species protection
Such a lawsuit, if filed, would pit the property rights of tiger trainer Alexander Lacey against the jurisdiction of the U.S. Endangered Species Act as it is now interpreted and possibly also that of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
When Lacey brought the big cats to the U.S. in 2012 to begin performing with Ringling, after he and his family had performed with 11 generations of the cats in Europe, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service claimed Endangered Species Act and CITES jurisdiction only over “pure” tiger strains.
Among captive tigers, that meant only “purebred” Bengal and Siberian tigers. Almost all performing tigers are hybrids of the Bengal and Siberian subspecies, of unknown genetic history.
Rule changed in October 2016
Performing tigers, such as Lacey’s, could accordingly be imported and exported with relatively little difficulty. In October 2016, however, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service introduced a new rule recognizing all tigers as members of an endangered species, thereby subjecting all interstate movement of tigers to additional permit requirements.
Arranging the return of the big cats to Germany for Lacey, “Feld Entertainment, Inc., doing business as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (‘Ringling Bros.’) respectfully submits an application to re-export to Germany fifteen (15) captive bred big cats (lions, tigers and a leopard) under CITES and ESA,” wrote Feld. “These animals were imported into the United States and have been performing under a contract with Ringling Bros. Blue Unit. These animals will be returning to Europe with their owner/trainer.”
Objecting to “Ringling’s effort to condemn these tigers to continued exploitation for ‘entertainment’ when there are humane options for the endangered animals,” Animal Legal Defense Fund publicist Natalie Lima explained that “Proper issuance of such a permit requires a demonstration by the applicant that the underlying activity for which the permit is being sought ‘enhance[s] the propagation or survival of the species.’
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has historically taken a controversial ‘pay-to-play’ approach to the enhancement requirement,” said Lima, “often rubber-stamping permits for objectionable uses of endangered species so long as the applicant makes a nominal donation to a conservation program.
“Use of tigers in circuses fails to educate the public,” Lima charged, “and has no nexus to legitimate species conservation.”
Added ALDF executive director Stephen Wells, “The curtain has come down on Ringling Bros.,” whose last performance was on May 21, 2017 in New York City, “and an enlightened public is turning away from the outdated notion that it’s acceptable to use endangered species as entertainment props. After spending years being carted around in cramped transport cages for 50 weeks of the year, it’s time for Ringling and trainer Alexander Lacey to let these tigers live out their lives at a reputable sanctuary where they can experience the space, habitats and peace they need and deserve.”
“These are Alexander’s cats”
But while the ALDF arguments played well to animal advocates, whether they can win legal standing and influence is another matter.
Explained Feld Entertainment spokesperson Stephen Payne to Christina Capatides of CBC News, “First and foremost, these are Alexander’s cats. He has always owned them. His family has raised them for generations. He loves them. They’re like members of his family [Alexander Lacey himself began working with them at age nine], so of course they’re staying with him.”
The Ringling elephants, a longtime activist cause celebré until the last elephants Ringling had on the road were retired in May 2016, “belonged to the company,” Payne continued. “The cats have always belonged to Alexander, just like the circus’s dogs belonged to our dog trainer, Hans Klose. They performed under our USDA exhibitor’s license and, as such, had to meet the federal and state care requirements in the states where we performed; but Alexander is not originally from the United States, so they are now going home with their owner, simple as that.”
Ringling went out a big winner against activist lawsuits
Should the Animal Legal Defense Fund opt to litigate to try to stop the Lacey big cats from being returned to Germany, ALDF will face a formidable adversary. Ringling left the circus business as a big winner in multiple lawsuits initiated by animal advocacy organizations to try to force an end to elephant shows.
Settling the biggest, the Humane Society of the U.S. and codefendants in May 2014 paid $15.75 million to Feld Entertainment to settle countersuits resulting from a lawsuit brought against Feld and Ringling in 2000 by plaintiffs including the American SPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Fund for Animals. The plaintiffs alleged that Ringling use of elephants violated the Endangered Species Act.
HSUS became involved after the Fund for Animals merged into HSUS in 2005. The Born Free Foundation was brought into the case after absorbing the Animal Protection Institute at the end of 2007.
The $15.75 million settlement was in addition to a $9.3 million settlement paid to Ringling by the ASPCA in December 2012.
Elephants in cancer research
The Ringling elephants were retired from performing to quieter lives at the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation in Ellenton, Florida, but hardly from ongoing economic use.
The elephants are now part of an ongoing cancer research project, which may become more profitable for the Feld family than exhibiting elephants ever was. The project appears to be minimally invasive to the elephants, but little has been disclosed about it.
University of Chicago researchers Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel estimated in the May 2006 edition of the Journal of Political Economy that a “1% reduction in mortality from cancer has a value to Americans of nearly $500 billion. A cure for cancer would be worth about $50 trillion.”
By comparison, Forbes magazine in 2016 estimated the net worth of Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment at about $1.8 billion, with annual gross revenue of about $1 billion per year.
Elephants have 20 pairs of cancer-fighting genes
The Ringling cancer research project began, reported Michael Pollick of the Sarasota Herald Tribune in November 2015, after a cancer-killing gene was identified, called TP-53, “which is nearly identical in elephants and humans, and which plays a key role in both creatures in recognizing and attacking out-of-control cellular growth, the essence of cancer.”
“Elephants are born with 20 pairs of the TP-53 gene per chromosome,” Pollick explained, “while humans only have two per DNA strand — one from their mother and one from their father. Roughly one out of 5,000 humans inherit just one TP-53 gene, instead of two, which vastly increases their chances of getting cancer.
“Just as importantly,” Pollick added, “the human version of TP-53 first tries to repair errant cells and then, if unsuccessful, begins destroying them. The elephant version of TP-53 does not bother trying to repair the mutated cells, but simply wipes them out.”