Plaintiffs Lack Standing in Ringling Bros. Animal Cruelty Case - Injury & Tort Law - DC Circuit
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Plaintiffs Lack Standing in Ringling Bros. Animal Cruelty Case

Sara Gruen's New York Times best seller, Water for Elephants, addressed the issues of circus animal treatment and cruelty to elephants. The topic has become increasingly popular in recent years as protesters call for circus boycotts to condemn animal cruelty.

This week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs in a circus animal cruelty case lacked Article III standing to bring an Endangered Species Act (ESA) claim against Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Tom Rider, a former Feld "barn helper," joined the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in filing suit against Feld in 2000, alleging that Ringling's use of bullhooks and tethering chains violated the ESA's "take" provision. The provision prohibits taking any endangered species within the United States, or to possessing or transporting an endangered species "taken" in violation of the ESA.

The Act defines "take" to mean "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct."

Rider alleged that Feld's use of bullhooks and chains in working with endangered Asian elephants harms, wounds, and harasses the elephants under the ESA, and therefore qualify as a "take," which Feld does not have a permit to do.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, based on records from the district court trial, found that Rider was "essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible," and ruled in Feld's favor.

The court noted that Rider received at least $190,000 from the organizational plaintiffs in this lawsuit, the primary purpose of which was to keep Rider involved with the litigation. The appellate court, much like the district court, failed to sense a connection between Rider and the elephants, and ruled that Rider did not meet the Article III standing requirement.

Rider's claims that he worked with Feld's elephants for two-and-a-half years, made occasional complaints during that time, and subsequently witnessed the elephants performing in the circus were, by themselves, sufficient to establish injury in fact.

If you plan to bring a cruelty to elephants claim - or animal cruelty case under the ESA - do your due diligence regarding standing under ASPCA v. Feld, and other animal cruelty cases, to ensure that your client satisfies the Article III standing requirements to bring the case.

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