Updated 3:14 p.m.
A federal appeals court in Washington today upheld the dismissal of claims challenging the alleged mistreatment of elephants at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled that the plaintiffs in the case, a former barn helper for the circus and a non-profit group that advocates for animal rights, cannot proceed with their claims that Ringling Bros. mistreats circus elephants.
The plaintiffs, Tom Rider and the Animal Protection Institute, alleged in Washington federal district court that Ringling Bros.’ use of bullhooks and chains, to handle Asian elephants, violated the Endangered Species Act. Rider and API sued Feld Entertainment, Inc., the circus' parent company. Click here for the complaint.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled in December 2009 for the circus following a six-week bench trial. Sullivan found Rider was “essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness” who lacked credibility. The judge also dismissed the injury claim from the animal rights group, which said it had to spend money to combat the circus’ alleged mistreatment of elephants.
Writing for the appeals court, Judge David Tatel noted that Rider “complained publicly about the elephants’ mistreatment only after he was paid by activists to do so.” Rider, the appeals court said, received $190,000 from the organizational plaintiffs in the suit against the circus.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys, including Sidley Austin partner Carter Phillips said Rider should not have been required to show a “single-minded, all-consuming obsession” with elephants but, instead, a personal attachment to the animals.
The appeals court said the “extensive findings” in the case supported Sullivan’s determination that Rider “failed to prove an emotional attachment to any particular elephant.”
The Animal Protection Institute made two arguments in the appeals court to try to convince the D.C. Circuit the group has standing to proceed with the suit. The group first said it suffered “informational” harm. The circus, the animal rights group argued, is depriving the public of information contained in permit applications.
API also said it must spend resources on public education to “counter the misimpression” that the circus’ treatment of animals is permissible. The general impression that the use of bullhooks and chains do not harm the elephants, the advocacy group said, makes it more expensive to educate the public.
The D.C. Circuit said there is nothing in the record supports the group’s claim the circus’ practices has created a public sense that the treatment of elephants is harmless.
Phillips, the group’s attorney and Sidley's managing partner in Washington, said in an e-mail this afternoon: "It is a disappointing decision because I thought we had shown enough for organizational injury with respect to reallocation of resources and should have had a chance to prove that Feld’s actions clearly violate the Endangered Species Act. The Court found our proof just a little short on causation."
The lead attorney for the circus, John Simpson, a partner in the Washington office of Fulbright & Jaworski, said this afternoon that the ruling was a "significant victory."
The D.C. Circuit's findings, Simpson said, will aid Feld Entertainment's pursuit of a civil racketeering case against several animal advocacy groups. That case, filed in 2007, is pending in Washington federal district court. It alleges, among other things, bribery, money laundering and wire fraud.
It wasn't immediately known whether Rider and the Animal Protection Institute will ask the full court to hear the case. Simpson said any effort to challenge the panel holding is "a waste of judicial resources."