by: Wes Ishmael

Ignoring extremist animal rights groups in the hopes of dousing the flames of controversy might have seemed logical in the beginning. Limping along without having to commit more scarce resources to the fight might have seemed necessary. Now, these notions seem less quaint than downright destructive.

Consider Feld Entertainment, Inc.'s recent decision to shutter the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus (RBBB) after 146 years.

Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, Inc. (FEI), the producer of RBBB, made the announcement Jan. 14:

“After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® will hold its final performances in May of this year,” Feld explained “Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

The transition of the elephants off the road surely had something to do with a 14-year saga of lies and skullduggery carried out by the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations of that ilk. Even though, FEI ultimately prevailed in the courts.

Never Mind the Facts

You might recall that (RBBB) retired its elephants from service last May. It was the last chapter of bitter irony that began in 2000 with fraudulent accusations leveled against FEI by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and others, alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Short story, the original complaint alleged that RBBB violated the ESA by harming the elephants through the use of guides and tethers. The animal groups claimed this was an illegal “taking” of the elephants under the law. Another of the plaintiffs suing was Tom Rider, a former FEI employee who worked in the elephant barn.

Ultimately, FEI filed a federal lawsuit against ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal rights activists and their lawyers for racketeering violations, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and the Virginia Conspiracy Act.

Along the way, the court discovered that plaintiff organizations, their lawyers and an entity controlled by those lawyers—Wildlife Advocacy Project—paid Rider at least $190,000 over the course of eight years—his sole source of income.

The court also found “…that ensuring Mr. Rider's continued participation as a plaintiff was a motivating factor behind the payments to him, and that these payments were a motivating factor for his continued involvement in the case.”

In December 2012, the ASPCA settled its share of the lawsuits by paying Feld Entertainment $9.3 million.

In May of 2014, HSUS, along with their co-defendants, paid Feld Entertainment $15.75 million to settle the case. The co-defendants included: the animal rights groups the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), the Wildlife Advocacy Project, as well as the law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, and several current and former attorneys of that firm.

At the time, FEI legal counsel in the matter, John Simpson, a partner with Norton Rose Fulbright's Washington, D.C., office said, “After winning 14 years of litigation, Feld Entertainment has been vindicated. 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.”

Along with discovering the animal rights groups and their lawyers paid the aforementioned 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. The Court found in addition to Rider being a "paid plaintiff," that the lawsuit was "frivolous and vexatious."

So, less than three years after winning the court battle, RBBB is packing up its circus tents, an American institution felled in part by lies, law breaking and everything else justice is supposed to guard against.

Mind the Social License

It's not like the livestock industry has done nothing, of course.

Various organizations, both alone and in concert with one another, continue to fight against extremist fiction, trying to present facts rather than rhetoric to the public.

Moreover, livestock organizations are stretched thin in the resources department—too many fires to fight with too little pressure.

Extremist camps, on the other hand, continue to attract millions of dollars of donations each year, even though they've been tried and convicted of organized crime.

All of that is to say that such issues have more to do with emotion than concrete fact in the public eye. Capture the public's emotion, even through lies, and they'll join in the effort, in the name of protecting animals. So, their desire may be noble, while the organizations they support to do their bidding may be more crooked than a snake wrapped around a truck axel.

Putting the hobbles on a different pony, social license is real; ultimately the public decides what businesses are acceptable. As evidenced by the example here, businesses ability to maintain their social license doesn't seem to rely on facts, necessarily, but on who most wants their social license maintained or revoked.

Every frivolous court case, undercover story and state ballot proposition that individuals and organizations in the livestock industry are forced to defend, chips away at social license, win or lose.

It's time to end the livestock industry's piecemeal approach to battling the extremist knot-heads. It's past time for a single, unified industry voice to combine resources and take specific, relentless aim at extremist suppositions.

No more circus elephants? No more Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus? It's almost as unthinkable as, no more cattle business?

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