Major entertainment genre that rely on animals to perform are routinely scrutinized by animal-welfare groups. The latter’s salutary concerns can segue into an intensive effort to discredit and possibly even abolish an entire sport or industry.

Horse racing has sometimes been in the spotlight, as in the Eight Belles fatality in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and the ensuing unsubstantiated allegations about the causes. This year during a few days Derby week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had a mobile billboard on the streets near Churchill Downs to blast the use of therapeutic medication in racehorses.

A December 2012 settlement between Feld Entertainment, owner of the venerable Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals demonstrated that animal-welfare groups can pay a hefty price for vendettas.

In 2000, Feld Entertainment was sued by five animal-welfare organizations, including the ASPCA, for purportedly mistreating circus elephants and thereby violating the Endangered Species Act. Another party to the lawsuit was a former Ringling Bros. elephant caretaker, known in circus vernacular as a “barn man.”

The lawsuit against Feld Entertainment was ultimately dismissed by a federal appellate court. However, the barn man’s grievance was allowed to proceed using the rationale that he may have been emotionally injured by Ringling Bros.’ treatment of the elephants in his care.

A trial was held in 2009 and a federal district court judge ruled for Feld Entertainment, labeling the former caretaker a “paid plaintiff,” whose only source of income for the previous eight years came from the $190,000 disbursed to him by animal-welfare organizations and media companies covering the case.

In 2007, in a separate lawsuit, Feld Entertainment had retaliated by countersuing all of the plaintiffs for filing specious litigation that breached federal racketeering law.

The ASPCA settled with Feld Entertainment in December 2012 by agreeing to pay the circus company $9.3 million, without admitting guilt. In return, the ASPCA was removed from the Feld Entertainment lawsuit, which proceeded against the remaining defendants. Feld Entertainment reportedly has spent some $20 million on legal costs.

Kenneth Feld commented: “Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses. This settlement is a vindication … for the dedicated men and women who spend their lives working and caring for all the animals with Ringling Bros.”

The Feld Entertainment chronicle implies that an animal-welfare group that chooses to litigate against a company such as a circus or racetrack does so with considerable financial risk to itself.

Copyright © 2013 The Blood-Horse. Used with permission.