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Court dismisses lawsuit over treatment of circus elephants

By Bill Mears, CNN
updated 11:03 AM EDT, Mon October 31, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Circus owner says he is "gratified" by the court's decision
  • NEW: Attorney for animal rights groups calls the ruling "disappointing"
  • The court said two animal protection groups and a former employee could not sue
  • The plaintiffs could not establish a legal "injury," the appeals court says

Washington (CNN) -- A lawsuit claiming systematic abuse and exploitation of elephants by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was dismissed Friday by a federal appeals court.

The three-judge panel concluded two animal protection groups and a former employee with Feld Entertainment Inc., owners of the circus, did not have "standing" -- or authority -- to bring the lawsuit, since they could not establish actual legal "injury" to themselves. The judges also questioned the credibility of the one-time circus worker, the main witness in the litigation.

The key question was whether the standard, open use of metal restraining and control devices improperly created the illusion, especially among children, they did no physical or psychological damage to the animals.

"Nothing in the record supports the key link in (the plaintiffs) argument, namely that Feld's use of bullhooks and chains fosters a public impression that these practices are harmless."

Vienna, Virginia-based Feld owns the country's largest collection of Asian elephants, an endangered species. They travel and perform as part of the multi-act circus. Most are kept at a Florida sanctuary in the off-season.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Protection Institute (API) joined forces, alleging Ringling Brothers harms the animals in violation of the Endangered Species Act. They were assisted by a former trainer -- called a "barn helper" in court records -- who testified the world's largest land mammals were being mistreated through "inhumane" practices.

The bullhooks, two- to three-foot rods with a pointed end, are used to guide and control the animals, both in the ring and in their living quarters. The chains are placed on the animals' legs when they are not performing and when traveling by train.

The circus argues the elephants are not harmed by such treatment, and the practices are done for their protection and the safety of the animals, spectators and circus personnel.

"We are gratified with today's decision because it is a victory over those whose radical agenda, if adopted, could lead to banning animals from circuses, zoos and wildlife parks," said Kenneth Feld, chief executive of Feld Entertainment. "We will continue to focus on providing quality care to our elephants and delivering unique family entertainment options to the public."

John Simpson, a Washington attorney representing the circus, said the claims by the animal rights groups have been thoroughly dismissed as "manufactured litigation." He cited the testimony of Tom Rider, the circus employee who helped bring the initial suit, which a federal judge had earlier concluded was "essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who lacked credibility."

Writing for the appeals court Friday, Judge David Tatel said Rider "complained publicly about the elephants' mistreatment only after he was paid by activists to do so." Rider had received $190,000 over eight years from the organizations suing the circus, noted the court.

API claimed its public education programs were hampered by the impression the elephants were content and unharmed by the control methods, causing them to expend valuable financial resources. The challenge for the plaintiffs was to show their advocacy efforts suffered injury. Their setback Friday in this important "gateway" issue means the case cannot proceed to trial. The animal protection groups have the option of asking the Supreme Court to review their case.

"It is a disappointing decision because I thought we had shown enough for organizational injury with respect to reallocation of resources and should have had a chance to prove that Feld's actions clearly violate the Endangered Species Act," said Carter Phillips, the attorney for the animal rights groups. "The court found our proof just a little short on causation."

Feld Entertainment has a pending civil racketeering lawsuit of its own, alleging the animal rights groups are engaged in bribery, money laundering and wire fraud.

The elephant appeal comes on the heels of a separate lawsuit filed this week against SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, operators of several marine animal theme parks and oceanariums.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has made a novel legal claim, alleging the constitutional rights of killer whales themselves are being violated by their captivity and performances. The group is suing on behalf of five individual sea mammals, claiming they are being held in slavery or involuntary servitude, in violation of the 13th Amendment.

The elephants case is ASPCA v. Feld Entertainment (10-7007).

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