The abuse of circus animals dates all the way back to the beginning of circuses. But not all circus animals are abused and mistreated. One major animal activist group learned this the hard way. Or, at the very least, they’ve learned that there’s a right way and a wrong way to bring animal abusers to justice, if abuse has, in fact, taken place.
After making a claim against Ringling Brothers and Barmum & Bailey Circus, the activist group faced potential litigation from one of the most famous circus chains in the world. They recently agreed to pay Ringling a sum of $9.3 million dollars to free themselves and a former elephant handler from any further litigation.
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The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals originally filed a suit against Feld Entertainment (producer of the circus) back in 2000. They claimed that Ringling, a Virgnia-based company, was mistreating Asian elephants that perform in their shows. Originally dismissed, the case cited the Endangered Species Act.
Even after a court dismissed the claim, Tom Rider, a former elephant handler responsible for watching over and feeding the elephants while working for Ringling between 1997 and 1999, was permitted by an appellate court to file an individual claim against Ringling, saying that he was emotionally injured by Feld Entertainment’s treatment of the animals.
In a 2009 trial, a District of Columbia district court judge ruled in favor of Feld Entertainment. The judge found Rider to be a “paid plantiff” who had overstated his love for the elephants. For eight years prior to his employment with Feld Entertainment, Rider’s only source of income had come from the animal welfare groups involved in the 2000 lawsuit and the media companies that had produced reports about the suit. Ultimately, the judge found Rider to be an incredible witness.
In response to the ruling, Feld Entertainment filed a countersuit against the ASPCA and Rider for malicious prosecution, abuse of process and violation of federal racketeering laws through unfounded litigation. President of the ASPCA, Ed Sayres, said that the activist group decided it would be in the company’s best interest to settle outside of court, but Sayres says that the settlement is not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
“We are glad to put this matter behind us so we can focus most effectively on our life-saving work, preventing cruelty and improving the welfare of animals,” Sayres said in a statement, adding that the courts never actually ruled on the ‘merits of the elephant abuse allegations.’
Kenneth Feld, chairman of Feld Entertainment, says that the animal rights group only called the litigation to destroy a family-owned business – one that sees 30 million customers a year. And, according to Feld, this isn’t the first time they’ve faced attacks from animal rights activists.
“Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses,” Feld said in an statement to NBC news. “This settlement is a vindication for the dedicated men and women who spend their lives working and caring for all the animals with Ringling Brothers.”
Steve Payne, spokesman for Feld Entertainment says that the circus, which currently has 45 elephants –most of which were born in captivity – was found to have met or exceeded all legal requirements regarding the welfare of their animals.
Regardless of what the courts say Elephants, Tigers, Horses and the other exotic animals in the show belong in the wild. Conditions aside, they are wild animals and shouldn’t be expected to perform ‘tricks’.