by: Wes Ishmael

If you ever wondered how important it is for cattle producers to take seriously even the most preposterous allegations levied by activist groups, consider the long winding road involving circus elephants.

In May of last year, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and co-defendants paid Feld Entertainment, Inc. $15.75 million to settle cases stemming from a lawsuit they brought against Ringling Bros.® over the care of its Asian elephants. Feld Entertainment, Inc. is the parent company of Ringling Brothers.

HSUS and animal rights groups the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), the Wildlife Advocacy Project, the law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, and several current and former attorneys of that firm, paid the settlement for their involvement in the case brought under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that the U.S. District Court ruled was “frivolous,” “vexatious,” and “groundless and unreasonable from its inception.”

The settlement also covered the related Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case that Feld Entertainment filed against the groups after discovering they had paid a plaintiff for his participation in the original lawsuit and then attempted to conceal those payments.

Ponder that RICO bit. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations. That's the piggin' string used to hog-tie members of organized crime.

“After winning 14 years of litigation, Feld Entertainment has been vindicated,” said John Simpson at the time, a partner with Norton Rose Fulbright's Washington, D.C., office —Feld Entertainment's legal counsel in the matter. “This case was a colossal abuse of the justice system in which the animal rights groups and their lawyers apparently believed the ends justified the means. It also marks the first time in U.S. history where a defendant in an Endangered Species Act case was found entitled to recover attorneys' fees against the plaintiffs due to the Court's finding of frivolous, vexatious and unreasonable litigation.”

In the original ESA lawsuit, Feld Entertainment discovered the animal rights groups and their lawyers had paid over $190,000 to a former circus employee, Tom Rider, to be a “paid plaintiff.” The Court also found that the animal rights groups and their attorneys “sought to conceal the nature, extent and purpose of the payments” during the litigation. Their abuse of the judicial system included the issuance of a false statement under oath by Rider, assisted by his counsel, who the Court found was “the same attorney who was paying him” to participate in the litigation.

“We hope this settlement payment, and the various court decisions that found against these animal rights activists and their attorneys, will deter individuals and organizations from bringing frivolous litigation like this in the future,” said Kenneth Feld, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Feld Entertainment. “This settlement is a significant milestone for our family-owned business and all the dedicated men and women who care for the Ringling Bros. herd of 42 Asian elephants. We look forward to continuing to set the standard for providing world-class care for all our animals and producing high quality, family entertainment."

So, Feld Entertainment won.

Yet, in March of this year, the entertainment organization announced that it was phasing Asian elephants out of its circuses by 2018.

Under the plan, 13 elephants currently traveling with the three Ringling Bros. circus units will be relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant for Conservation® in Florida, joining the rest of the Ringling Bros. herd of more than 40 elephants.

“This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995,” Feld said. “When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephant for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild. Since then, we have had 26 elephant births. No other institution has done or is doing more to save this species from extinction, and that is something of which I and my family are extremely proud. This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers.”

Skullduggery Continues Unabated

None of this seems to have slowed or altered the approach of HSUS and organizations like it.

In March, for example, Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO testified at a meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife. The topic was the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2015.

During testimony, one of the committee members, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), mentioned to Pacelle, according to the unofficial transcript, the HSUS ads he saw running after the horrendous tornado in Moore, Okla. last year.

“…it shows the dogs out there, the pitiful dogs. That hit me hard because that is one of the things I do, help with abandoned dogs and that type of thing,” Inhofe said. “So I was changing my feelings a little bit (about you) until I realized that our Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, has a lawsuit against you based on the fact that in the programs we have had, you have actually extracted, as a result, probably because of that ad—I almost contributed myself—some $1.7 million from Oklahomans. And, in the same time frame that that money came in, only $110,000 was donated to animal shelters and other institutions in my State of Oklahoma. So Oklahomans paid you $1.7 million and got back $110,000. Is that true?”

Pacelle's clumsy response never did come around to yes or no, even though Inhofe shared a statement from HSUS' own general counsel verifying the figures.

Later, in accepting the National Shooting Sports Foundation Defender of America's Hunting Heritage award for bringing attention to HSUS' misleading fundraising tactics, Inhofe explained, “…. HSUS operates as if they are in the business of caring for abandoned household pets, like dogs and cats, through local animal shelters, yet a tiny fraction of its raised funds actually goes towards their well-marked mission… I am glad we are making waves in exposing this organization's true activist interests…”

Increase Your Presence

“Would you give money to a charity that was involved in a multi-million dollar racketeering lawsuit?

“Would you donate to a charity that was being investigated by an attorney general?

“Would you support a humane society that actually ran zero pet shelters?

“Would you?”

That's the dialogue of a recent ad from (HWO), paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), which takes direct aim at HSUS and the deceptive practices it uses uses to raise funds.

According to HumaneWatch.Org, HSUS generated more than $130 million in revenue (2013 tax return) and gave about one percent of that to local pet shelters.

“It's hard to believe anyone would support HSUS if they knew the truth about the deception,” says Will Coggin, CCF director of research. “HSUS relies on manipulative and deceptive ads to keep Americans in the dark and fund a radical, PETA-like agenda that has nothing to do with rescuing and sheltering animals.”

In addition to the settlement of RICO charges against it, and the Oklahoma attorney investigation of it, HWO points out:

• Charity Navigator has issued a “Donor Advisory” against HSUS;

• HSUS has repeatedly earned “D” grades from CharityWatch;

• HSUS does not run a single pet shelter, despite its name and its ads full of dogs and cats.

“People who care about saving cats and dogs should give to their local shelter directly,” continued Coggin. “HSUS doesn't deserve donations; it deserves more investigations of its deceptive fundraising appeals.”

Thankfully, Livestock producers and wildlife stewards have long-standing, lion-hearted allies like Inhofe and CCF. If you want to be certain the gate got shut, though, you make sure you're part of the process.

After all, until recently, many of us figured a circus without elephants was as likely as a hamburger without beef.

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