Ringling Brothers Circus.
Ringling Brothers Circus. (Shutterstock)

In lengthy litigation over the treatment of performing animals, the real circus was in the courtroom.

Lawyers for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wrestled for 14 years with attorneys representing animal rights activists who accused the circus of abusing its elephants.

In 2009, circus producer Feld Entertainment, based in Palmetto, Florida, prevailed in a bench trial that was seen as a test of the Endangered Species Act and could have ended the elephant performances for good. But Feld turned the tables on its accusers, demonstrating that the plaintiff and star witness, a former Feld elephant trainer, had been paid to take part in the case. In the next phase of the fight, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups wound up paying Feld $25 million for its legal fees.

The elephants were ultimately pulled in 2015—but not before a parade of lawyers got in on the act. Among the firms listed in court records are Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, Zuckerman Spaeder, and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Now, as the “Greatest Show on Earth” prepares to permanently fold its tents in May, it’s left lawyers from both sides to reflect on the fallout of that hard-fought litigation.

“It mushroomed out of control,” said attorney Terrance Gilroy Reed, who represented the controversial trainer.

John Simpson of Norton Rose Fulbright, who led Feld’s defense team, hailed the victory for giving the circus a chance to close on its own terms, rather than succumb to coercion from “agenda-driven litigation.”

At the end of the day … they not only lost the case, they ended up paying the circus $25.2 million in legal fees,” Simpson said.

But the animal activists also claim a win. Despite steep costs, they say the prolonged fight proved fatal for the 146-year-old struggling circus. Their images of shackled elephants drove years of negative publicity that soured audiences and forced Ringling Brothers to retire its elephants. On Jan. 14, Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld announced that the loss of the elephants caused “an even more dramatic drop” in already declining ticket sales.

“There is no question that the closing of the circus is (due) in large part to the publication of evidence of the circus’s cruelty to animals adduced in the Endangered Species Act litigation,” Animal Welfare Institute counsel Stephen Neal Jr. of DiMuro Ginsberg said.

At the center of the litigation was former circus employee Tom Rider, an elephant trainer who claimed to see the abuse up close. Rider claimed circus workers beat the animals, chained them during sleep and stabbed them to coerce performances. He joined plaintiffs including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Animal Protection Institute in a suit that sought to block Feld’s use of 42 Asian elephants.

The case turned in the circus’ favor when Norton Rose attorneys combing through years of court files inherited from a predecessor law firm uncovered a winding paper trail that documented clandestine payments to Rider. They tracked $190,000 paid through a charity created by plaintiffs lawyers at Washington, D.C.-based Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal (now Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks).

“We thought, ‘Surely this isn’t happening,’” Simpson said.

Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sulli­van of the District of Columbia issued a ruling that called Rider a “paid plaintiff” and found the attorneys redirected funds to “conceal the nature, extent and purpose of the payments.”

“This case gave a lot of hope to other businesses that are needlessly attacked,” said Michelle Pardo of Norton Rose Fulbright in Washington, D.C., who litigated the case along with Simpson. “It established the extent to which agenda-driven litigation can go.”

Feld Entertainment filed a countersuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and spent about three years litigating its claims against the animal rights groups and plaintiffs attorneys. It reached a $9.3 million settlement with the ASPCA and a $15.75 million settlement with the attorneys and other co-defendants to cover Feld Entertainment’s legal expenses in defending the Endangered Species Act lawsuit.

“I personally thought it was a misuse of the federal RICO statute,” said Reed of Lankford & Reed in Arlington, Virginia, who represented Rider and was not named in the counterclaim. “It made a federal case out of an effort to … protect the elephants. “

Despite the costs, the case may have laid the groundwork for animal rights activists to ultimately claim their prize. In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had not been party to the litigation, cited testimony from the case in a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act. That complaint led the USDA to impose a $270,000 civil penalty on Feld Entertainment for dozens of violations—the largest assessed at the time against an exhibitor.

“The writing has been on the wall that they need to be out of business,” said Jeffrey Kerr, PETA general counsel and senior vice president of corporate affairs. “It’s a relic of the past and now will be relegated to the trash heap of history, where it belongs.”

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