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Ringling Bros. Circus Elephant Lawsuit

Why Animal Protection Groups Paid $15.75 Million to Ringling Bros.


Ringling Elephants
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Updated June 1, 2014

In a lawsuit that dragged on for nine years, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on December 30, 2009, finding that plaintiffs in the lawsuit do not have standing. In 2012, a court found that plaintiffs' lack of standing made the lawsuit was frivolous, and that Feld Entertainment Inc., which owns Ringling Bros., was entitled to attorney's fees. In a settlement agreement, plaintiffs, including The Humane Society of the US, a law firm, and several animal protection groups agreed to pay FEI $15.75 million.

Plaintiffs' Claim

Plaintiffs claimed that Ringling Bros.' use of bullhooks and chains constituted abuse and a "take" of the elephants, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The court did not rule on the plaintiffs' substantive claims about elephant abuse or violations of the ESA.

Article III Standing

In American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals et. al. v. Feld Entertainment, Inc., plaintiffs included former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider and the Animal Protection Institute. The court found that neither plaintiff had Article III standing, under the U.S. Constitution. Article III standing is required for all plaintiffs before federal courts, in order to ensure that there is a genuine case or controversy, and has three parts:

[T]o satisfy Article III's standing requirements, a plaintiff must show (1) it has suffered an 'injury in fact' that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

Tom Rider's Standing - Injury and Redressability

The court found that Rider had no Article III injury and that the alleged injury could not be redressed by the court. Rider's injury was based on his stated strong, emotional attachment to several specific Asian elephants who had been abused while under Ringling Bros.' care, but the court did not believe that Rider had this strong attachment or suffered this injury. This finding was based on a number of factors, including Rider's failure to speak up about the mistreatment while employed by Ringling Bros., Rider's own use of the bullhook while employed by Ringling Bros. and other circuses, and Rider's receipt of payments from animal advocacy organizations.

Regarding redressability, plaintiffs sought a court order against Ringling Bros. to stop the abuse of the elephants. Rider argued that he wanted to be able to visit the elephants and work with the elephants again and would be able to tell whether the elephants had been abused. But the court did not believe that Rider had a strong desire to see or work with these elephants again because Rider had made only one visit to one of the elephants who had been relocated to a zoo, never applied for a job with that zoo, and would never have access to the other elephants anyway because Rider would never be allowed to work for Ringling Bros. again. The court also doubted whether Rider would be able to tell whether the elephants were suffering from continuing abuse.

Animal Protection Institute's Standing - Injury and Redressability

Regarding the Animal Protection Institute, the court similarly found that API did not have an Article III injury, and that the alleged injury could not be redressed by the court. API argued that Ringling Bros. should have applied for a Section 10 permit under the Endangered Species Act, and their failure to do so meant that API did not have access to the information that would have been made available through the permitting proceedings. However, the court found that there was no guarantee that the proceedings would take place, that the proceedings would be under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which was not a party to the lawsuit), that API failed to establish that they would spend less on their captive elephant campaign, and that a Section 10 proceeding would not provide API with any information they had already received as a result of the lawsuit.

No Ruling on Elephant Abuse

Although the court held that plaintiffs did not have standing, it is important to note that this opinion does not mean that the elephants under Ringling Bros.' care are not abused. The court did not decide the abuse issue, and based its ruling for Ringling Bros. solely on the plaintiffs' lack of standing.

The court's opinion is available from the district court's site.

Attorney's Fees

After the court determined that plaintiffs did not have standing, FEI demanded to be reimbursed for their attorney's fees. The court determined in 2012 that Tom Rider had been paid to be a plaintiff and lied about the payments. The court also decided in 2012 that the lawsuit was frivolous because plaintiffs did not have standing, and that FEI was entitled to be reimbursed for attorney's fees. The court emphasized that their holding had nothing to do with the question of whether the elephants were abused; the decision was based on plaintiffs' lack of standing. Before the court determined the amount that the animal protection groups should pay FEI, the parties settled for $15.75 million in the spring of 2014. According to the Washington Post, "Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said the settlement is covered by insurance and no donor money will go to Feld."

Doris Lin, Esq. is an animal rights attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the Animal Protection League of NJ.

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