Who hasn't seen and been moved by the TV ads from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showing sad, abused puppies that need a home? Who could tell from these that the ASPCA is a radical, ideological, even tyrannical organization?
Some background: More than a decade ago, the ASPCA joined with other animal-rights groups to sue Ringling Bros. as part of a campaign to keep animals out of zoos and circuses.
As justification for this radical position, the lawsuit alleged that the circus was abusing elephants. But a judge tossed the claim after finding that the plaintiffs were in effect turning the courtroom into a three-ring circus.
It turned out the ASPCA's star witness and plaintiff, Tom Rider, a former Ringling Bros. employee, had a flagrant conflict of interest: He was on the payroll of a nonprofit involved in the litigation.
The judge wrote in a 2009 opinion that Rider was "not credible," and the jurist gave "no weight" to any of his testimony.
In a man-bites-dog twist, Feld Entertainment, the operator of Ringling Bros., sued the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and a troupe of other clowns — er, 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 high price to pay not to have to admit any wrongdoing.
But the litigation is just a sideshow. The main attraction is the ongoing battle over the very presence of animals in zoos and circuses. In fact, under pressure from activists, the Los Angeles City Council is expected this year to consider a citywide ban on elephants in circuses.
The activists' agenda is laid bare by the L.A. 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, "The 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." This is the sort of self-defeating, anti-social, ideology-driven advocacy that is not uncommon among those who have decided that they — and only they — are the arbiters of what is ethical and moral in society.
In the Hill Country of Texas thousands of ranches harbor and raise African animal species that are endangered or even extinct in the wild. Their efforts have vastly increased the numbers of those animals, but many animal rights groups adamantly oppose these efforts.
Why? Because the ranches have created an economic incentive to conserving and expanding the herds: they permit the animals to be hunted, on a very limited and exclusive basis.
Animal lovers like us may be tempted to contribute to the ASPCA's "save the puppy" fundraising campaigns, as well as other emotionally powerful, and misleading, appeals from other seemingly well-intentioned groups. But the behavior of these groups should give us pause.
Consider what the ASPCA is doing with its millions in donations. First, it advanced a bogus allegation to support an agenda that was obfuscated in their advertising. Now it has to pay out $9.3 million to its primary adversary. But the multi-million dollar settlement has a silver lining: The lion's share of the funds will be spent on the welfare of animals at Ringling Bros. instead of on the cynical agendas of the ASPCA.
Influential and financially motivated advocacy groups arrayed against companies should take notice: Your tax-exempt status does not grant you carte blanche to abuse the court system by harassing 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. But defeats such as the Ringling Bros. suit haven't made the activists smarter or chastened. Expect the animal rights activists to pick on smaller zoos and circuses that aren't as well-positioned to defend themselves.
The real agenda here is control of citizens' choices via intimidation — or failing that, by means of greater government intrusion into our lives. The elimination of elephants from zoos and circuses isn't about animal welfare. It's about limiting our choices of entertainment and diversion only to those that activists find "acceptable."
Similarly, soda/sugar taxes are not about obesity; they're about funding bloated, ineffective but favored government programs and punishing corporate America. Only by learning about the hidden agendas in mind and opposing them can we ensure the personal and commercial freedoms that Americans cherish.
Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.