The U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed a $270,000 civil penalty on Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (“Greatest Show on Earth”), for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act spanning a period of years, from June 2007 to August 2011. The civil penalty was made pursuant to a settlement agreement, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, in which Feld Entertainment agreed to “develop and implement annual AWA compliance training for all personnel who work with and handle animals (animal trainer, animal handler, animal attendant, and veterinarian technician).” After March 31, 2012, employees who work with and handle animals would be required to complete the training within 30 days of being hired, and by February 28, 2012, Feld must have established a staffed AWA compliance position. This development is welcome news following recent failures to hold Feld accountable for animal abuses, particularly against elephants. Just this past October, a lawsuit brought by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Protection Institute, alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act, was dismissed in federal appellate court because they lacked standing.
It should be noted, however, that Feld does not admit to any wrong doing, stating in a recent editorial that “[w]e stand by our animal-care program” and that the settlement agreement was merely “a business decision” to prevent engaging in “costly and protracted litigation.” Indeed, Feld states it remains firmly committed to two goals: providing for the care and well-being of its animals and producing “the very best in live family entertainment.” In light of documented abuses, and the fact that animals are often forcibly trained via pain to perform tricks, aren’t these goals necessarily in tension with each other? Perhaps if circus-animals were truly happy, truly better off than they would be in the wild, using them for performance purposes wouldn’t be objectionable, but that is not reality. The settlement agreement, one hopes, will encourage compliance with AWA standards, but at the same time it may simply perpetuate the notion that keeping wild animals in captivity for human amusement is acceptable.