Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus is suing critics who claimed its elephant handler mistreats one of the animals appearing in the circus.

The circus brought a defamation complaint in Fulton County Superior Court against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and multimedia hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. UniverSoul said the animal abuse allegations sullied its reputation, jammed its phone lines and forced it to shut down its website and Facebook page.

The complaint, filed March 6 by Tracey Blackwell of Atlanta’s Gonzalez, Saggio & Harlan, said PETA sent letters last month to the circus’ corporate owner, Soul Circus Inc. (SCI), and the operators of two Florida venues. The letters accused UniverSoul and its elephant handler of mistreating a female African elephant named Nosey. The letters asserted that the elephant exhibitor, Hugo Liebel of Tampa, had been cited for multiple violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act and demanded that the circus cancel a show scheduled for the following day.

The complaint said PETA later posted a picture of a chained elephant "purporting to be Nosey" on its website, with the caption, "SCI does not care about the treatment, health, or wellbeing of its animals." PETA subsequently posted the same message on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, the complaint said, resulting in the circus receiving more than 100,000 comments on its website, "effectively shutting down SCI’s social media accounts."

In late February, Simmons posted a message on his website accusing Liebel of breaking federal animal protection laws.

"As a strong supporter of African-American arts," wrote Simmons, "I am extremely pleased that UniverSoul Circus has developed a unique model with fascinating human performers."

But, Simmons continued, Nosey has been kept "in chains so tight she could barely move, and Liebel has been cited for not providing her with the medical care she needs."

The complaint denies any claims of mistreatment and said the circus requires that all of its animal acts comply with federal, state and local statutes. Liebel, it said, is fully licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nosey, it said, was under the care of a licensed veterinarian and in good health when she was part of the circus’ acts.

The suit accused both PETA and Simmons of defamation, tortious interference with business relations, false light and civil conspiracy, and seeks attorney fees and punitive damages.

A statement PETA provided in response to the suit denies that its claims about UniverSoul were false and levels more accusations of animal abuse at the circus.

"The claims against PETA are baseless, and the lawsuit seems to be showmanship, not based on fact," said the statement emailed to the Daily Report on Wednesday. "What is fact is UniverSoul’s history of ignoring repeated appeals to recognize charges of Animal Welfare Act violations against its exhibitors. PETA repeatedly contacted UniverSoul Circus to remind its CEO that the neglected African elephant Nosey, being used in the circus’ shows, had a painful skin condition and that her exhibitor is facing 33 charges for violating federal law, including by repeatedly denying her adequate veterinary care and chaining her too tightly. UniverSoul failed to respond, and Nosey was forced to perform, even being made to crawl to her master in the ring."

The statement said UniverSoul had a "long history of hiring known Animal Welfare Act violators," and accused the provider of its big cats of being "cited for a host of violations while traveling with UniverSoul."

Blackwell did not respond to telephone and email queries about the suit. Efforts to reach Simmons through his public relations company, Rush Communications, and through other Simmons-related companies were unsuccessful.

The case is Soul Circus Inc. v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, No. 2013CV228230.