After more than eight years of legal wrangling, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, will finally stand trial to face charges that the circus abuses its Asian elephants in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.
On Monday, October 27, the plaintiffs, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Animal Welfare Institute, Fund for Animals, Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute, and former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider are scheduled to present their case in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, in ASPCA, et al. v. Feld Entertainment, Inc.
The groundbreaking lawsuit alleges that the Ringling Bros. circus violates the Endangered Species Act by abusively training and disciplining elephants with sharp implements such as bull hooks and by intensively and continuously confining and chaining the animals for hours and even days on end.
“We look forward to finally having the opportunity to establish at trial that Ringling Bros. inhumanely and unlawfully mistreats the endangered Asian elephants it uses to perform in shows all across the country,” said lead counsel Katherine Meyer of the law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal in a statement. “The elephants not only deserve to be treated in a humane manner but they are entitled to be protected under the law and we hope that they will be afforded such protection once this case finally comes to an end.”
Over the years, the plaintiffs have amassed a wealth of evidence to support their claims including photographs, video footage, internal Ringling Bros. documentation and reports from the United States Department of Agriculture. In addition to such evidence, eyewitness testimony from former Ringling Bros. employees and testimony from leading elephant behavior experts will be presented by the plaintiffs at trial.
Feld Entertainment is conducting a vigorous defense in the lawsuit. “Animal special interest groups are distorting the facts by making false allegations about the treatment of Ringling Bros. elephants as part of a long-running crusade to eliminate animals from circuses, zoos and wildlife parks,” said Michelle Pardo of Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., in a statement, which is representing Feld Entertainment in the case. “Feld Entertainment will show during the trial that its elephants are healthy, alert, and thriving, and it intends to debunk the misinformation that has been spread by those who do not own or know how to care for an elephant.”
Ringling Bros. says it meets and often exceeds federal requirements on the care of circus animals, and its animal care practices are commonly accepted and well-known to the government. In fact, Ringling Bros. is inspected repeatedly by federal, state, and local authorities in virtually every city the circus performs, and Ringling Bros. has never been found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that regulates the treatment of animals by circuses, zoos and other exhibitors.
The complaint, which will be heard by federal District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, was filed by the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute and Rider, who is a former Ringling Bros. employee. The complaint alleges that Ringling Bros. has violated the Endangered Species Act by harming the elephants through the use of guides and tethers. The animal groups claim this is an illegal “taking” of the elephants under the law. Ringling Bros. spends $6 million annually on its animal care with more than $60,000 a year dedicated to each of its 52 elephants.
The original complaint was filed in July 2000. The case was dismissed in 2001 but was reinstated in 2003 after an appeal. The appeals court ruled that if Tom Rider could prove that he was “aesthetically injured” by Ringling Bros.’ treatment of the elephants, the case could proceed. Whether such an “injury” to Rider actually exists and can be remedied will be a major issue in the trial. So will the financial support that Rider receives from his co-plaintiffs — a fact that was unknown to the appeals court in 2003.
In an important ruling in August 2007, the U.S. District Court narrowed the scope of the case to only six of the 52 Ringling Bros. elephants. The judge granted partial summary judgment to Ringling Bros. and ruled that none of the Ringling Bros. Asian elephants that were born in the United States were subject to the claims of the animal groups under the Endangered Species Act.
Ringling Bros. has filed a separate lawsuit against the animal groups under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Conspiracy Counterclaim. That litigation is on hold and will proceed separately following completion of the current case.