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On December 30, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued an opinion concluding a nearly 10-year battle between animal welfare organizations and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, over the treatment of Ringling’s elephants. Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed the case, ASPCA v. Feld Entertainment, after determining that the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Animal advocates initially filed suit in 2000, alleging that Ringling’s routine beatings and chaining of its Asian elephants, members of an endangered species, constituted unlawful “taking” of endangered animals in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Tom Rider, a former Ringling employee and elephant handler, later joined the case as a plaintiff. After the district court dismissed the case on standing grounds in 2001, the D.C. Circuit held that Rider had sufficiently alleged an ongoing “aesthetic and emotional injury” as a result of “the mistreatment of the elephants to which he became emotionally attached during his tenure at Ringling Bros.” The court did not decide whether the animal organizations had standing to bring the case on their own, but emphasized that Rider presented the strongest case for standing.
After five-plus years of discovery and a non-jury trial at which the court heard testimony from approximately thirty witnesses and admitted hundreds of documents, the court never reached the merits of the case. Although testimony from Ringling executives revealed that the circus’s elephants are routinely hit with bullhooks–a training “tool” resembling a club with a metal hook on the end–and are regularly chained in train cars for 26 to 100 hours at a time, the constitutional standing barrier rendered these facts irrelevant. Judge Sullivan found that Tom Rider was a paid-plaintiff who suffered no emotional, aesthetic injury as a result of the elephants’ suffering, but rather made such claims solely to receive payment from his co-plaintiffs. Sullivan determined that the animal groups also lacked standing.
The decision is yet another indication of a major problem facing animals in entertainment: despite multiple statutes enacted for their protection (both the Animal Welfare Act and the ESA ostensibly make unlawful the abuse alleged in the Ringling case), it is exceedingly difficult to find a plaintiff with standing to sue violators of the acts. Just days before the district court’s decision, the Washington Post ran a story about another former Ringling employee, Sammy Haddock, who came forward with tales of Ringling’s elephant abuse. Although the man unfortunately passed away before he could take any legal action, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) used Haddock’s photos and documents to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Perhaps this time, with a different statute and a different strategy, animal advocates will make more progress toward ending the suffering of Ringling’s elephants.
– Emily Beverage
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