USDA’s $270,000 Settlement with Ringling Bros. is Kind of Ironic

Posted by Chris Berry, ALDF's Litigation Fellow on December 5, 2011

Renowned jurist William Blackstone famously commented that:

[W]here there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy, by suit or action at law, whenever that right is invaded.

Last week, the USDA announced the largest penalty ever assessed against an animal exhibitor for violations of the Animal Welfare Act when it settled with the owners of the Ringling Bros. circus for $270,000 stemming from “alleged” mistreatment of elephants and tigers. The healthy enforcement and hefty settlement levied against Ringling Bros. warrants some commendation of the USDA but is tainted with a tinge of irony. Animal rights groups have been suing Ringling Bros. unsuccessfully for years to put a stop to similar mistreatment of elephants.

When most people think about animal rights they think about substantive rights such as the right not to be killed to satisfy trivial human interests, the right to adequate space, and the right to be free from abuse. However, these substantive rights are only as powerful as their complementary procedural right of enforcement. I might declare myself King of the Galaxy but, with no means to enforce my decrees, my right to rule the galaxy is worthless. This is a similar conundrum that confronts advocates seeking to enforce animal rights.

Lawsuits may only be brought on behalf of human interests. This proposition seems innocuous enough but is actually quite arbitrary and harmful. Under American law, a person must have standing in order to bring a lawsuit. Generally, this requires that the individual has suffered some discrete injury to ensure that the lawsuit is vigorously advocated and that the judgment rendered constitutes more than a mere exercise of mental masturbation by the judiciary.

It is an unfortunate quirk of our law that standing may not be predicated on injuries to an animal. Laws such as the Animal Welfare Act, the Humane Slaughter Act, and anti-animal cruelty laws implicitly recognize that animals have the capacity to suffer, i.e., to be injured. After all, there is no Furniture Welfare Act or Humane Lumber-Making Act resting within our colossal stacks of statutory law. By failing to recognize injury to an animal as a sufficient basis to sue, the law limits enforcement of animal rights to executive agencies or to humans that have coincidentally suffered an injury.

This brings us to the irony of the Ringling Bros. settlement. Animal rights groups sued Ringling Bros. circus in 2000 alleging that the treatment of elephants violated the prohibition against harassing elephants in the Endangered Species Act. Since the groups could not premise their standing-to-sue on injuries to the elephants, they instead advanced arguments framing the lawsuit in terms of coincidental human injury. The courts shot down each of these arguments and, eleven years after the first case was filed, have not yet issued a judgment on the elephants’ underlying substantive rights under the Endangered Species Act. The USDA rattles its sabre ten years later and easily vindicates the general spirit of the lawsuits – that Ringling Bros. “allegedly” unlawfully mistreated its elephants.

The USDA’s extraction of the largest penalty against an animal exhibitor for violating the Animal Welfare Act is welcome news and hopefully a harbinger of the agency’s future inclinations. However, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. ALDF’s standing to sue on behalf of animals is regularly challenged in the cases it brings and some cases are turned down altogether. Executive agencies should focus more resources on enforcing the law. But more importantly, the law should recognize the procedural right of groups like ALDF to bring suits vindicating injuries suffered by animals themselves.

2 thoughts on “USDA’s $270,000 Settlement with Ringling Bros. is Kind of Ironic

  1. Carol Walker says:

    Couldn’t this, now, be used as “PROOF” in court, in re-opening these other cases from Animal Rights’ groups ???

  2. Chris Berry, Animal Legal Defense Fund says:


    A party’s own admissions can be used as evidence against it in future proceedings under the “party admissions doctrine” of evidence law. I think I’ll take a look at the exact language of the settlement agreement to see what exactly Ringling Bros “admitted” to. Typically, parties do not admit to wrongdoing when they settle cases so I don’t expect to find much but it’s worth looking at anyway. Great idea and thanks for your involvement!

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