Animal rights group pays settlement in circus elephant case

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(CNN) — A circus producer said Friday that an animal rights group has paid it $9.3 million to settle two federal court cases claiming elephant abuse.

Feld Entertainment, Inc., trumpeted the settlement with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) as a victory for its Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“These defendants attempted to destroy our family-owned business with a hired plaintiff who made statements that the court did not believe,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, in a statement.

“Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses,” Feld said. “This settlement is a vindication not just for the company but also for the dedicated men and women who spend their lives working and caring for all the animals with Ringling Brothers in the face of such targeted, malicious rhetoric.”

The ASPCA was one of several animal rights groups that sued Feld Entertainment in 2000, alleging that circus elephants were abused.

Both parties filed dismissal papers in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The ASPCA confirmed the settlement, saying in a statement that “the organization does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing.” The court never ruled on the merits of the elephant abuse allegations, it said.

“After more than a decade of litigating with Feld Entertainment, the ASPCA concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation,” said ASPCA President and CEO Ed Sayres in the statement.

Feld’s cases, which include allegations of litigation abuse and racketeering, will continue against the other defendants — the Humane Society of the United States, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA and Tom Rider, a former circus employee who testified against Ringling Bros.

U.S. District Judge Emmett G. Sullivan deemed Rider’s testimony tainted because he had been paid by animal rights activists and did not have standing to sue.

“The court finds that Mr. Rider is essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible, and therefore affords no weight to his testimony regarding the matters discussed herein, i.e., the allegations related to his standing to sue,” he wrote in a December 2009 opinion.

CNN was not able to reach Rider on Friday.

ASPCA spokeswoman Elizabeth Estroff would not comment on specifics of the case.

Friday’s settlement did not placate Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

“While HSUS was not a party to the original case against Ringling, we agree with so many critics of the circus that its treatment of elephants is deplorable and unacceptable. We’ll continue to make our case to the public, even as Ringling files frivolous and retaliatory legal actions to divert and distract from its abuse of elephants,” he said in a statement.

John Simpson, lead counsel for Feld and a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski in Washington, said Feld’s legal costs since July 2000 have exceeded $20 million, but that settlements with other defendants may be reached.

“We’re going to see this through to conclusion, whether it ends in a verdict or whether it ends in a settlement,” he said in a telephone interview. “But they know where to find me.”

The toll of the case has gone beyond a financial one, he said. “It gets very personal and nasty out there on the line when the company’s employees are handling the elephants in public on walks,” he said. “I think the people who have cared for these animals have suffered and been unjustly accused.”

CNN’s Devon Sayers contributed to this report.

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