How's this for a "man bites dog" story? A major nonprofit activist group is paying a corporation to settle litigation. Usually it's the other way around.
Over a decade ago, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals joined forces with other animal-rights groups to sue Ringling Bros. as part of a campaign to keep animals out of zoos and circuses. The lawsuit alleged that the circus was abusing elephants.
A judge tossed the claim after finding that the plaintiffs were turning the courts into a three-ring circus.
The ASPCA's star witness and plaintiff, Tom Rider, a former Ringling Bros. employee, turned out to be on the payroll of a nonprofit involved in the litigation. Perhaps his experience with a shovel as a "barn helper" made him uniquely qualified to earn at least $190,000 to testify for the "animal rights" group. The judge wrote in a 2009 opinion that Rider was "not credible," and he gave "no weight" to any of his testimony.
In a twist, Feld Entertainment, operator of Ringling Bros., turned the tables and sued the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and a troupe of other plaintiffs.
The case wasn't just showmanship. Last week, the ASPCA became the first and, so far, only defendant in the racketeering, conspiracy, and lawsuit-abuse litigation to settle with the circus, to the tune of $9.3 million – a pricey way not to admit any wrongdoing.
But don't expect the activists to walk away with their tails between their legs.
In fact, under pressure from activists, the Los Angeles City Council is expected this year to consider a citywide ban on elephants in circuses.
As the ASPCA acknowledged in a news release last week, "[T]his litigation has stopped being about the elephants a long time ago."
The activists' agenda is laid bare by the Los Angeles initiative: It isn't about allegations that trainers behaved badly, it is about whether animals should be in zoos and circuses in the first place.
As the New York Times reported last month, "[T]he fight over whether elephants should be allowed to perform in traveling shows is only partly about how they are treated: an endangered species, Asian elephants are part of a broader debate over how, and whether, humans should interact with wild animals" at all.
How radical are these groups? One lawyer involved in the Ringling case stated in an unrelated legal proceeding that her clients, several animal-rights groups, "would rather see the elephants dead than in a zoo." (Born Free USA vs. Norton)
Animal lovers like myself are tempted to contribute to the ASPCA, with their heartstring-tugging ads showing sad puppies. And I think they aren't as radical as PETA. But look at what ASPCA is doing with those "save the puppy" contributions.
Think of it this way: the next $9.3 million the ASPCA raises won't go to care for abandoned puppies and kittens, it'll go to Ringling Bros. Ironically, that money will have a better chance of being spent to actually care for animals and engender interest in their welfare.
Influential and financially motivated advocacy groups lined up against companies should take notice: Your tax-exempt status does not grant you carte blanche to abuse the court system and harass companies you don't like in pursuit of an agenda many of your donors may not know about.
Kudos to Ringling Bros for holding the activists and their lawyers accountable.
Don't expect them to back down. Just expect them to pick on smaller zoos and circuses, who aren't as well-positioned to defend themselves.
Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.