Did Animal Rights Groups Swindle Circus Company Feld Entertainment?

We all went to the circus as kids — but when our youthful glory starts to wane, so does that once-joyful image of "the greatest show on earth." The circus mistreats its animals, and animal rights activists are fighting the good fight in trying to save those poor elephants and tigers — right? That narrative got turned on its head on Thursday, when animal-rights groups had to pay almost $16 million to Feld Entertainment, one of the biggest circus companies on the planet.

The AP reported that Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has received $15.75 million from several animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States. The settlement ends a 14-year-long litigation in which the animal rights groups alleged that the circus company mistreated its elephants. In 2012, a judge ruled that the complaint filed by those groups was "frivolous" and led to CEO Kenneth Feld having to spend millions on legal fees.

Feld's lawyer, John Simpson, said, "It's like accusing a kindergarten teacher of child abuse."

So, how did the lengthy legal battle end up resembling childish finger-pointing? Well, that's all down to one plaintiff, whose testimony lost the animal rights groups their case.

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The initial lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a former Ringling Bros. barn helper, who alleged that the circus elephants were abused. It was later revealed that the plaintiff was paid at least $190,000 by the very animal groups that helped bring the suit. The judge called him "essentially a paid plaintiff" who lacked credibility, and was therefore not eligible to sue.

Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Purcell tried to downplay his company's involvement by saying it was peripheral, and turned the tables around on Feld, claiming that the entertainment company was emphasizing the Human Society's role in the case for political reasons. He told AP reporters that he expects the Human Society's contribution to the settlement to be covered by insurance and that "we are not in the end going to give a dime to Feld."

Simpson countered by saying that the Humane Society was "integrally involved" and had even allegedly paid $2,000 to the barn helper who filed the frivolous lawsuit. Excuse the animal pun, but sounds like the claws are still out, even though litigation has ended.

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This case is a rare occasion where the big private corporation, whose CEO is a billionaire, gets to play the hero (or vindicated victim) while the little — at least in comparison to Feld Entertainment — nonprofits, whose main concern is the well-being of our beloved animal friends, are relegated to the villain role.

"The fact that we could get dragged through this for 14 years ... I think it is very clearly a public vindication for our company that these people really misused the judicial system," Feld told the AP.

And what do people naturally want to do when they feel vindicated? Shout it from the rooftops. The Ringling Brothers website prominently features the news on a landing page preceding its home page. Which animal rights group does it call out? You guessed it — the Humane Society.