Sonia Horon & Alisa Manzelli, Global Animal

In a move that shocked many, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has decided to pay Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus a huge $9.3 million settlement to end charges of protracted abuse litigation.

The lawsuit revolves around the circus’ unethical treatment of Asian elephants and was originally filed in July 2000 by Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) on behalf of the ASPCA, AWI, FFA, Tom Rider, and others. After it was dismissed by a judge for lacking evidence, the producer of the circus filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) action against the animal welfare groups involved. The case is still pending.

Ringling Brothers Elephants
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey elephants walk early July 10 to the Staples Center in Los Angeles before performances there. Photo Credit: Handout/Reuters

The ASPCA’s original case began to fall through the cracks when a judge ruled their key witness, Tom Rider, as an incredible witness due to the fact that his income was provided by the numerous animal groups associated with the case. The court found Rider received more than $190,000 from animal rights groups over a span of eight years.

“These defendants attempted to destroy our family-owned business with a hired plaintiff who made statements that the court did not believe,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, in a statement.

In addition, the Daily Beast explains, “In the trial, Tom Rider, the star witness for the plaintiffs, proved to be problematic. Even though he referred to the elephants as his ‘girls’ and claimed to have a ‘personal’ and ’emotional’ attachment to them on par with the one he had for his two daughters and his grandson, he was unable to identify the elephants in videotaped footage. Moreover, Rider’s own employment record indicated he was not upset by the way elephants are handled in a circus. Before Ringling Brothers, he worked for Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, where he used chains and a bullhook in handling elephants. During his two-and-a-half years at Ringling Brothers, he never complained about elephant mistreatment to the media, circus veterinarians, United States Department of Agriculture inspectors, or his supervisor.” On the other hand, there is no hard evidence that the paid informant did, in fact, lie.

For his compensation, the animal groups claimed Rider was performing “media work” and “educational outreach,” however Judge Sullivan did not agree.

“The Court finds that Mr. Rider is essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible, and therefore affords no weight to his testimony regarding the matters discussed herein,” Sullivan stated in a decision handed down in December 2009.

Over 12 years, Feld Entertainment spent $22 million on legal fees. And while the ASPCA’s $9.3 million offsets a portion of that amount, Feld still seeks to recover the remaining $12.7 million from the remaining RICO defendants.

“We’re going to see this through to conclusion, whether it ends in a verdict or whether it ends in a settlement,” John Simpson, lead counsel for Feld and a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski in Washington, said in aninterview. “But they know where to find me.”

However, many questions remain. For instance, there is so much evidence collected by animal welfare organizations like PETA with undercover videos documenting the abuse taking place at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses. Doesn’t the evidence speak for itself? Was it deemed irrelevant due to the hired informant’s incredibility? Unfortunately we were unable to find out answers to any of these questions as our phone calls to the ASPCA remain unanswered.

In fact, the only information we have received is the general statement given by ASPCA’s President & CEO Ed Sayres: “After more than a decade of litigating with Feld Entertainment, the ASPCA concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation. We are glad to put this matter behind us so we can focus most effectively on our life-saving work, preventing cruelty and improving the welfare of animals.” 

The statement failed to mention that the ASPCA actually instigated the litigation—only that the organization wanted to return to their “life-saving work, preventing cruelty and improving the welfare of animals.”

And despite the fact that “the organization does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing,” the ASPCA also failed to mention that—in yet another incongruity—during the 12 years of litigation, the safety inspection of the circus elephants was actually conducted by the ASPCA in two of the nation’s most prominent venues.

The ASPCA’s settlement did not pacify president and CEO of the HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, who said in a statement, “While HSUS was not a party to the original case against Ringling, we agree with so many critics of the circus that its treatment of elephants is deplorable and unacceptable. We’ll continue to make our case to the public, even as Ringling files frivolous and retaliatory legal actions to divert and distract from its abuse of elephants.”

While our friends at the ASPCA have made some unwise choices, we feel their desperate and unnecessary measure was ultimately in the animals’ interest. However, what makes this story so sickening is the fact that animal lovers’ donations are now falling into the hands of those actually harming animals. We are disappointed the ASPCA chose to not only hire, but also pay off a witness when the evidence speaks for itself. And the fact of the matter is that elephants are still suffering in circuses.

Fortunately, animal-friendly cities like Los Angeles are working to implement an overall ban on the use of wild animals in traveling circuses. Please take a moment to sign the ADI’s petition urging LA City Council to ban the use of wild animals in traveling circuses as well as the petition calling on the USDA to revoke Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus’ exhibitors’ license and carry out a full investigation.




  1. No, but he was injured and out of work for a bit. He knew the inherent dangers in his business and lived for it. The circus was in his blood, as it has been in mine for thirty years. Sorry that your experiences discouraged you from continuing your life in the business. Mr Vargas (late of Circus Vargas) always said they are trained, not tamed. I hope you are in a profession more to your liking now.

  2. Alexis Kaiser I bet your dearest friend didn't have most of his upper arm ripped off…. Tigers are dangerous animals…and it's a shame how they are forced to live in cramped surroundings for show. In another show I was a performer… of the dancers was hit by a leopard. Watching two vicious cat attacks is enough for me to not be around them on stage.