Abuse Under the Big Top: Seeking Legal Protection for Circus Elephants after ASPCA v. Ringling Brothers

Abuse Under the Big Top: Seeking Legal Protection for Circus Elephants after ASPCA v. Ringling Brothers

Emily A. Beverage · 13 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 1, 155

Abstract

The Asian elephants featured in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are theoretically guaranteed humane treatment by the Animal Welfare Act, which ostensibly protects animals in exhibition, and by the Endangered Species Act, which covers the treatment of animals designated endangered species, including Asian elephants. Nevertheless, circus elephants have suffered extensive abuse because the agencies responsible for implementing the laws—the United States Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, respectively—have not done so aggressively, and because animal advocates have been unable to compel their enforcement or to establish standing to sue private parties. In 2000, animal welfare organizations, including the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, invoked the citizen-suit provision of the Endangered Species Act to sue Ringling for alleged violations of the Act. Joined by former Ringling “barn man” Tom Rider, the plaintiffs survived the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of constitutional standing by claiming that Ringling’s treatment of its elephants caused Rider emotional harm. Ultimately, nine years after the plaintiffs filed their complaint, the court dismissed the case without reaching the merits of the abuse claims. Characterizing Rider as a paid plaintiff, the court determined he could not prove an emotional attachment to Ringling’s elephants or that the court could redress his alleged injury.

This Note examines the statutory enforcement gaps highlighted by the Ringling litigation and proposes strategies for closing those gaps with legislation and litigation. After exploring the statutory backdrop against which the Ringling case arose and evaluating the successes and failures of the lawsuit, this Note suggests amending the Animal Welfare Act to ensure its diligent enforcement. Proposed changes include adding guidelines that would constrain the broad enforcement discretion the Secretary of Agriculture currently exercises and supplementing the Act with a limited citizen-suit provision. This Note also recommends the enactment of state anti-cruelty laws that would prohibit certain circus training tools—such as the bull hook. As the Ringling litigation demonstrated, animal advocates face a formidable hurdle—constitutional standing—when suing on behalf of animals. As such, this Note advocates further strategic litigation, implementing two promising standing theories: informational injury and economic harm to an organization.