A 14-year battle over the care of Feld Entertainment's circus elephants ended Thursday with the Humane Society of the United States and others paying a $15.75 million settlement.
The lawsuit was filed by a company the Humane Society acquired, along with other animal rights groups, against Feld, parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, over the care of its 43 Asian elephants.
The settlement follows $9.3 million that the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals paid in 2012 for its connection to false claims against Feld in U.S. District Court in Washington.
"We hope this settlement payment, and the various court decisions that found against these animal rights activists and their attorneys, will deter individuals and organizations from bringing frivolous litigation like this in the future," said Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment. "This settlement is a significant milestone for our family-owned business and all the dedicated men and women who care for the Ringling Bros. herd of 42 Asian elephants."
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Feld's circus operations are in Florida where they have a 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County. The center has had 26 elephant births, said Stephen Payne, spokesman for Feld. The company is completing its 600,000-square-foot headquarters building in Palmetto that includes an area planned to provide temporary housing for circus animals.
"We're in the process soon of creating an animal compound on property so when we have rehearsals, all the animals can live right there," Payne said.
The 145th edition of the Ringling Bros. circus will rehearse there in December and January, Payne said.
The Humane Society's affiliate and its codefendants, which included a former circus employee Tom Rider, sued Feld and Ringling in 2000, citing cruel treatment to en
dangered elephants through the Endangered Species Act, saying that the circus improperly removed the Asian elephants from their habitat and abused them.
The case was dismissed in 2001, but an appellate court reinstated the case in 2003 to give Rider, of Washington, Ill., an opportunity to prove he was injured by the Ringling Bros.' care of the elephants.
The settlement also resolves another case Feld filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. During the original suit, Feld found that the animal rights groups and their lawyers paid Rider $190,000 to be a paid plaintiff, which triggered the RICO suit, and found that Rider lied under oath. Without the settlement, Feld could have been awarded triple the amount of legal fees, Payne said.
The animal rights groups "sought to conceal the nature, extent and purpose of the payments" to Rider, whose attorney was paying him to participate.
The Humane Society became involved in the legal battle in 2005 when it merged with the Fund for Animals and was considered an "independent racketeer" in the RICO suit. A judge denied a request in 2012 to throw out the RICO suit. Feld found that Rider was being paid from the Fund for Animals bank account.
The Humane Society said it settled the case to avoid continuing costs and it expects insurance will cover most of the settlement, avoiding donation money being used to pay Feld.
The Humane Society wants Feld to spend the settlement money to "help protect threatened and endangered elephants."
"We urge the company to combat the killing of tens of thousands of elephants for their ivory," Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle said. "An additional $15 million can save countless elephants, by putting more armed guards on the ground or by working to reduce demand in ivory-consuming countries."
Feld also works with a variety of zoos and is working with the Sri Lankan government to "mitigate human conflict" with elephants there, Payne said. Ringling has the largest and only sustainable herd of Asian elephants in the northern hemisphere, he added.
Abuse question unknown
"We are very proud of our animal welfare program," Payne said.
Because the case was settled, the courts never ruled on whether the circus animals were abused.
"The court never ruled on the central question of the abuse of circus elephants in this 14-year-old case, and the groups and their lawyers decided to settle the cases and avoid incurring additional costs," said Michael Markarian, president of Fund for Animals.
The Humane Society and codefendants Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), Wildlife Advocacy Project, law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal and other current and former attorneys from that firm will have to pay the $15.75 million settlement, according to court documents.
So far, Feld recovered more than $25 million in legal fees defending the Endangered Species Act case.
"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. It also marks the first time in U.S. history where a defendant in an Endangered Species Act case was found entitled to recover attorneys' fees against the plaintiffs due to the Court's finding of frivolous, vexatious and unreasonable litigation," said Feld Entertainment's legal counsel, John Simpson, a partner with Norton Rose Fulbright's Washington, D.C., office. "The total settlement amounts represent recovery of 100 percent of the legal fees Feld Entertainment incurred in defending against the ESA lawsuit."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.