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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Elephant Handlers Dodge Mistreatment Claims

(CN) - Animal activists lack standing to sue the owners of the country's largest collection of endangered Asian elephants, some of which perform in its famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, the D.C. Circuit ruled.

In 2000, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other proponents of animal rights, including former Ringling Brothers barn helper Tom Rider, filed suit against Feld Entertainment. The complaint claimed that Feld violated the Endangered Species Act by chaining the elephants in between performances and controlling them with bullhooks, rods with a metal point and hook on one end.

The case was quickly dismissed for lack of standing, but the D.C. Circuit revived it in 2003 after concluding that the activists could establish standing with proof of the allegations.

After a six-week trial, the District Court determined the animal rights activists failed to prove their allegations because the evidence was insufficient and Rider was not a credible witness, as he joined the lawsuit only after receiving payment from the animal rights organizations.

On appeal, Rider challenged the court's need for him to prove a "single-minded, all-consuming obsession" with the elephants, instead of a "personal attachment," as dictated by case law. Rider said he satisfied that attachment by working closely with the elephants for over two years, complaining to his supervisor about the elephants' mistreatment, and visiting the elephants several times per year for his media work.

The claims failed to convince a three-judge panel, however. "The district court's conclusion that Rider failed to credibly prove an emotional attachment to any particular elephant rested on extensive factual findings, including Rider's difficulty recalling the elephants' names, his use of the bullhook in Europe, his lack of forthrightness about payments he received from the organizational plaintiffs, and various inconsistencies in his testimony," Judge David Tatel wrote for the court.

"Moreover, no case supports Rider's claim that the District Court's findings that he worked with Feld's elephants for two-and-a-half years, made occasional complaints during that time, and subsequently witnessed the elephants performing in the circus are, by themselves, sufficient to establish injury in fact."

The plaintiffs also failed to plead informational standing on the basis that Feld lacks the necessary permits under the Endangered Species Act.

"As the district court pointed out, unlike the statutes under which plaintiffs sued in Akins and Judicial Watch, nothing in section 9 [of the Endangered Species Act] gives API a right to any information," Tatel wrote, referring to the Animal Protection Institute.

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