Southern California animal activists have repeatedly clashed over the years with producers of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which returns to Anaheim's Honda Center July 25-Aug. 3. But now, nearly 14 years of litigation have come to an end with a federal court settlement that has circus overlord Feld Entertainment receiving $15.75 million from multiple animal welfare groups.
Under the terms of the settlement, the nearly $16 million will be paid to Feld Entertainment of Vienna, Virginia, by the Humane Society of the United States, the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), the Wildlife Advocacy Project, the law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal and several current and former attorneys of that firm.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals settled its share of the same case in December 2012 by paying Feld Entertainment $9.3 million, so the company has so far recovered more than $25 million in legal fees and expenses, which it claims have been spent to defend the Endangered Species Act (ESA) case brought by the activists.
The animal welfare groups sued in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on grounds that the treatment of 43 Asian elephants that perform in the circus violated the federal ESA. Feld was accused of taking the beasts out of their native habitats, and circus handlers were alleged to have abused elephants on the company's behalf.
The case had local rumblings as a then-Anaheim city councilwoman in 2012 proposed–and later abandoned–banning performing animals within city limits due to the abuse allegations.
A settlement means a court has not ruled on the central question of whether the animals were abused, although Feld's spokespeople are quick to point to previous court findings of the ESA complaint being "frivolous, vexatious and unreasonable litigation."
The settlement ends a counter-complaint that Feld Entertainment filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) that claimed former circus employee Tom Rider was paid more than $190,000 to join the plaintiffs, who then tried to conceal those payments. A court in 2012 had ruled that case could go forward.
"After winning 14 years of litigation, Feld Entertainment has been vindicated," says John Simpson, Feld's legal counsel in the case, in a statement from the company. "This case was a colossal abuse of the justice system in which the animal rights groups and their lawyers apparently believed the ends justified the means."
The Humane Society announced it settled the case to avoid continuing costs and that most of the funds are expected to be covered by insurance and not donations to the group.
Speaking of money, the Humane Society also urged Feld to spend the settlement money to "help protect threatened and endangered elephants," something the company claims it has been doing for years at a 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.