Wednesday, March 29, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mom Takes On Circus’ Animal-Rights Stance

WASHINGTON (CN) - A Washington mother says a circus' apparent support of animal rights made her purchase tickets to a July show, even though she normally avoids circuses.

Now Melanie Sloan claims statements Soul Circus - which operates UniverSoul Circus - made in support of animal rights are a sham, and has teamed with PETA to file a class action complaint against the circus for violations of consumer protection laws.

"As a result of defendant's deception, conscientious consumers like Ms. Sloan are deceived into doing precisely that which they intend to avoid: supporting and perpetuating the abuse of animals through their purchasing choices," Sloan says in a complaint filed Monday in Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Sloan bought four tickets to the UniverSoul Circus when the show came to Washington on July 11. She normally is opposed to such events and does not go to "circuses, zoos, amusement parks, aquariums or other businesses that do not have a record of properly caring for animals," she claims in the complaint.

However, after reviewing the animal-rights statement on the circus' website, Sloan believed she could attend with her conscience intact, according to the complaint.

"The UniverSoul Circus is committed to the proper treatment of animals," the statement on the company's website says in part. "We strongly oppose any form of cruelty or mistreatment of animals, wild or domestic - and will not tolerate any mistreatment on our circus site. In over 19 years and more than 10,000 performances, none of our animal vendors have ever been cited for animal abuse while performing at the UniverSoul Circus."

The circus also made limited use of animals in its advertisements for the show, Sloan claims. Instead it showed human performers like magicians, trapeze artists and motorcycle stunts in an attempt to hide the use of animals from potential customers.

The circus allegedly does not have a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would allow it to keep and exhibit animals at its shows, Sloan claims.

Instead, it borrows animals from licensed vendors, several of whom have violated the Animal Welfare Act, according to the complaint.

Sloan lists 13 vendors she says the circus leased animals from and that the USDA allegedly cited for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. These violations, the list of which makes up 7 pages of the 22-page complaint, range from failing to provide shelter and medical care to improperly training staff.

The circus exhibited elephants "who tested reactive" for tuberculosis and kept tigers in small spaces during magic tricks performed at the show, Sloan claims.

This alleged arrangement with outside vendors allows the circus to maintain its outward commitment to animal rights and "exploit growing consumer concern about the treatment of captive animals used for entertainment," Sloan says in the complaint.

After a friend forwarded Sloan an email exposing the alleged violation by the circus' vendors, Sloan decided she could not bring her family to the show, according to the complaint.

"UniverSoul knows that kind people like Ms. Sloan will not buy tickets to circuses that mistreat animals, so it deliberately promotes itself as something it is not: a champion of animal rights," Martina Bernstein, PETA Foundation's director of litigation, said in a statement. "PETA is calling for UniverSoul to make good on its empty animal-welfare claims and end the use of tormented wild animals in its shows."

The class action seeks $1,500 per violation of Washington's Consumer Protection Procedures Act as well as punitive damages and injunctive relief. Anyone in Washington who bought tickets to a Soul Circus show in the past three years is eligible to join the class.

PETA Foundation attorney Jeffrey Kerr represents the class.

A representative for Soul Circus did not respond to request for comment.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.