After what even a neutral observer writing for Law.com describes as "eight grinding years of litigation," attorneys for the circus and animal advocacy groups will face off in a bench trial Wednesday over how Ringling handles its elephants.
At its core, the lawsuit charges that Ringling's methods of training and managing its elephants - which includes chaining them for up to 20 hours at a time and use of piercing bullhooks - constitute abuse that violates the Endangered Species Act. Ringling, not surprisingly, maintains that its practices are necessary and commonplace in the circus and zoo industries.
If nothing else, both sides agree that the suit is attempting to break new legal ground. According to animal law expert and Michigan State law professor David Favre, "[t]he ESA until now has more or less dealt with nameless animals in the wild," Favre says. "This is the first time its dealing with wildlife in a captive situation."
While the suit only applies to the treatment of six particular elephants - the ones with whom the only plaintiff that was found to have standing interacted - Ringling paints a much grimmer picture. According to an attorney for Feld Entertainment: "If [the plaintiffs] had their way, the only way that Americans are going to be able to see elephants is in books and videos."
Of course, imho, the knowledge (legendary in animal advocacy circles and probably increasingly known by the general public as well) of how Ringling treats its elephants is a much grimmer thought for me. The reality is, there is substantial evidence that elephants are intelligent and sensitive animals who lead emotionally complex lives - and the strain of such oppressive captivity really is harmful to their health. The further reality is that other organizations, such as the San Diego Zoo, have dropped the chaining and bullhooks; the elephants have not run amok or otherwise endangered public safety. And then of course there is the pink elephant in the room: whether we have a "right" to keep such intelligent creatures in captivity at all. (Of course, there are many days when I would happily agree to stay in an apt in sunny Southern California rent-free with three squares a day if I could, but I digress...)
Nothing so lofty can come of this trial. But the issue that is up for grabs - whether keeping someone chained for up to 20 hours at a time or using skin-piercing hooks to train them is abusive - is pretty straightforward. Nor is it the first time Ringling has fought off efforts to curtail its practices.
In Chicago, for example, last year Feld successfully watered down, and eventually quashed, a proposed Chicago ordinance that would have banned chaining and bullhooks when the circus came to perform in the Windy City. I know this because I worked, in small part, on the ordinance effort. No matter that Ringling apparently already owned the electric fencing alternative. It threatened local lawmakers to pull out of its annual two-week performances at the United Center, and in typical Chicago political fashion - if memory serves - also made about $40,000 in "donations" to local city council members' campaign funds. Sigh.
Hopefully, this ESA lawsuit will be different. At one point during an earlier discovery hearing, D.C. District Court judge Emmet Sullivan called Feld's excuses for taking more than two years to turn over document production "crap". I, for one, hope that he feels the same way about their defenses at trial.