The animal liberation group Humane Society of the United States (which only gives 1% of its money to local pet shelters, according to its tax return) was crowing on Wednesday, declaring a victory against the circus in Los Angeles alongside PETA and other radicals. But the party may be short lived. This week the circus moved to strike back in a failed lawsuit in which the HSUS affiliate Fund for Animals was a plaintiff—and the group could now be on the hook for millions in legal fees. This is one of the suits that the ASPCA settled for $9.3 million late last year.
The lawsuit revolved around the very tool that HSUS, PETA, and others were able to see banned in Los Angeles—an ankus, or elephant guide, used to control the massive pachyderms. The legal theory was essentially that because Asian elephants, which are used by the Ringling Bros. circus, are an endangered species, and Ringling uses an elephant guide (or “bullhook” to the activists), that this amounted to unlawful harassment under the federal Endangered Species Act.
That theory, of course, relies on the premise that use of an elephant guide is inhumane—which it isn’t. It’s a legitimate tool, but like any tool could be misused—but you don’t see city councils banning all cars because of drunk drivers.
The real motivation behind the suit was that animal rights groups don’t want any animals used for entertainment. In fact, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs, Katherine Meyer, told a court in a separate case (also representing some of the same animal rights groups) that her clients believed elephants are better off dead than in a zoo. (Um, and these people claim to be “advocates” for animals?)
The animal rights groups lost the lawsuit in late 2009—an incredible nine years after the litigation commenced—with the federal judge making several key findings of fact. The judge found that the animal-rights plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue. And more incredibly, the judge found that the key witness, a former Ringling employee named Tom Rider, was paid over $100,000 by the plaintiff animal rights groups and also “lied.” That includes money from the Humane Society of the United States itself via an HSUS check signed by CEO Wayne Pacelle. More recently, the judge issued sanctions against Meyer and her law firm.
In short, this lawsuit from animal rights activists dragged on in court for a decade, and has since undergone about four years’ worth of motions and a failed appeal to reach today. The judge has already ruled that the plaintiffs will have to pay attorney fees. And this week Feld filed a motion demanding $25.4 million from the plaintiffs—after all, a decade of litigation tends to be costly. The HSUS affiliate Fund for Animals may have to pay millions. And HSUS itself may be on the hook. Since the Fund for Animals merged with HSUS in 2005, while the lawsuit was underway, Feld argues that HSUS is also liable. The judge is yet to rule on that matter.
Meanwhile, HSUS is also a defendant in a lawsuit brought by Ringling’s owner, Feld Entertainment, under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. That lawsuit also names two HSUS in-house lawyers, Jonathan Lovvorn and Kimberly Ockene. That lawsuit is entering discovery and will likely take a number of years to reach a conclusion, barring any settlement’s such as the ASPCA’s.
HSUS and PETA may be bragging today. But the animal rights movement faces the significant possibility that a federal court will trample on its litigious ways in the near future.