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Activists' Case is True-Life Three Ring Circus

Defending Agriculture

Animal rights lawsuit against Ringling Bros. may have implications for livestock agriculture

Published on: April 23, 2012
Producers involved in animal agriculture may soon owe Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a deep debt of gratitude.

The parent company of Ringling Bros. has been engaged in its own three ring circus, and I do not mean what you take your children to enjoy.

Animal rights groups such as Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Animal Welfare Institute and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals used the Endangered Species Act to allege elephant abuse by Ringling Bros Circus.

Ring one has Ringling Bros. engaged nearly 11 years in a legal dispute involving its treatment of elephants. It won the case, and it cost over $20 million to defend.

It turns out the key plaintiff for the animal rights groups was a paid liar! More later.

It is hard to believe this matter has taken over 11 years of litigation, 500 court docket filings, a 6-week bench trial, 30 witnesses, hundreds of exhibits and hundreds of pages of post-trial documents. There have been 2 appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.

Now Ringling Bros is going after legal fees it incurred over the last 11 years. This, you might say, is the center ring of the circus.

The third ring will be interesting to anyone in animal agriculture. Ringling Bros. has filed a lawsuit against the animal rights groups claiming that HSUS and its lawyers have violated the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act ("RICO") statute and further claims in this case which was filed in 2010 that the animal rights groups and their lawyers engaged in serious activities such as money laundering, illegal witness payments, bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, malicious prosecution, obstruction of justice, abuse of process, and conspiracy to harm a business. Feld Entertainment has not sent in the clowns to make these charges.

If Ringling Bros. wins, the impact will be much greater than firing one of its entertainers out of a cannon.

Where it started

This legal drama started when a plaintiff named Tom Rider brought a lawsuit against Feld Entertainment in 2000 where he alleged elephant abuse in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Rider was a trainer and elephant handler for the circus and was the key witness in terms of the alleged elephant abuse. A key legal issue which absorbed an enormous amount of legal work was whether Rider had standing or had been harmed sufficiently to bring the action against Feld.

According to a motion for attorney's fees "Tom Rider testified at trial and was found to be a plaintiff for hire who was completely untruthful." A further claim was that "Rider's purchased lies fraudulently opened the courthouse door by creating federal jurisdiction where none existed and are the sole reason that this case has been ongoing since July, 2000." The court observed "...that it probably had never seen a witness as totally discredited on just about every aspect of his testimony..."

Mr. Rider apparently had claimed he stopped working in the circus community because he could not tolerate the way elephants were treated by Ringling Bros. and claimed he wanted to visit Ringling Bros. elephants but was "...unable to do so without suffering more aesthetic and emotional injury." In part his injury was his " ...refraining from seeing his girls." (I am not making this up.)

The 45-page motion filed by Feld's attorneys is a dense legal document arguing over what qualifies a person to be harmed. What is enormously important in this case is that HSUS and other animal rights groups filed a complaint which contained allegations of animal abuse, and they were false. The abuse apparently involves the use of bullhooks and chains to keep the animals in place or to get them to perform. The motion claims Mr. Rider, was paid at least $190,000.00 to provide false testimony by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, HSUS, Performing Animal Welfare Society, and the Animal Welfare Institute.

Feld in its motion alleges plaintiffs and their counsel perpetrated a fraud upon a U.S. District Court through a paid witness! This was nothing more than a coordinated scheme to purchase testimony according to the motion.

For animal agriculture, this case may well be "The Greatest Show on Earth."

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Here's an update to your piece, at the end last year Feld Entertainment entered into a settlement agreement with USDA and paid a civil penalty of $270,000 for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. This represents the largest fine ever against an exhibitor under this federal law.

  2. Anonymous says:

    As a Director of a group to promote circus in Europe I was delighted with the results for Feld. For many years the Animal Rights groups have been misrepresenting everything by using false propaganda and outdated photos and videos claiming them as recent ones. They even get recent ones and doctor them to look bad. We await with interest the next round. All the best to RB and B and the Feld group.

  3. Anonymous says:


  4. Anonymous says:

    It has been a few years since I have been to a circus. I did so enjoy Guenther Gebel-Williams and his wonderful animals. I had the pleasure of watching him use the elephants to unload in Houswton the year his son was born in that city. The son, I believe, was at the beginning of this lawsuit. The animals I saw were the healthiest any could possibly be, and happiest. For anyone to say those animals were abused is just ignorant. Abused animals do not perform with that kind of joy. Just doesn't work that way. Then there is the other thing...what would these people prefer to be done with these animals? Retire them to a preserve in Africa? They aren't doing well there. Too many, they kill the excess or poachers do for the ivory. Might just as well kill them on the spot. That seems to be the solution of choice. In Thailand the elephants used to work in logging. They don't do that anymore. Many, with their handlers, are "tourist attractions" working the streets for handouts. The RB&B circus has provided a happy home for elephants for many years. We are lucky to have them and I just don't believe they mistreat them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am not a member of the HSUS or PETA, but I am an animal activist. I am also a farmer. I don't support the work done by the previously named groups, because they do not work for the purpose they make so many believe, and the work that I've seen them do is extremely unhonest. The use of animals in circuses and the raising of livestock is a productive use of the precious animals that we are blessed with. Consider your pets, as they are no different, but there certainly aren't any groups trying to eliminate the right to keep pets because of those who abuse them.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have also been a Ringling employee. Charges of abuse are unfounded. Hoping that the Feld organization wins!

  7. Anonymous says:

    To the anonymous post at 9:14 I am going to use your last line of your post from hear on out. That is the perfect way to say it!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I testified before a congressional committee on this issue on the side of the animal owners and I can tell you that Bob Barker and Mr. Rider testified on the other side. Mr. Barker testified under oath that babies had been pulled from mothers arms by elephants. This was a total fabrication and he nor any of his cohorts offered not one shred of evedince to support the statement. Representative Barr from Georgia chastised him strongly. I share this to point out that many animal activist will stop at nothing to further thier agenda and to protect the millions of tax free dollars that they recieve annually from uninformed people with slick ads and internet campaigns. HSUS and PETA garner more than one hundred million every year. Check the records, how much of that money benefits animals?

  9. Anonymous says:

    As someone who is involved with a traveling circus (as a third party vendor) I can tell you that there is much consternation over lies and misrepresentations used by the animal rights groups. There have been abuses. The most famous of which happened over 15 years ago. The trainer was well past his expiration date and should have been gone long before the incident that led to his immediate dismissal. But the fact that PETA in particular uses this now-aging video to infer that the incident just happened, or to infer that using these methods is a common thing, speaks to how little they value the truth. With the USDA now in bed with PETA and others through the collaboration of government officials with an agenda to take every performing animal out of the show, only a formidable opponent like Feld could even get into the ring in this fight. How can you have an honest open discussion of the issues when the animal rights folks believe they are ordained by God and that truth is just a technicality.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I Am A Ringling employee, I have nothing to do with the animals but I can tell you right now that the animals with Ringling are treated with the utmost care. Anyone who says different is a liar.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You have most of the details of the case right but the allegations were never proven to be false as the court never reached a decision on the allegations because Rider did not survive the standing to sue issue. In fact if the court had to decide on the allegations there was certainly enough testimony from Ringling employees alone to prove Rider's allegations.