Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment, which produces the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus, has some advice for beef producers on the topic of animal rights.
“I don’t believe in turning the other cheek in a debate like this. You just get slapped twice,” he says.
Payne contacted me after having read my article on carriage driver Tommy Doyle and his family’s Palmetto Carriage Works of Charleston, SC, in the June 7 issue of BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly. That article detailed the challenges and the approach of the Doyle family in working with livestock in the heart of an urban area.
Payne reports that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey operation faces a similar challenge, in that it serves more than 10 million people annually and is under constant scrutiny – harassment really – from animal rights activists. Payne says Feld Entertainment, like the Doyle family, takes a firmly proactive stance when it comes to animal welfare. And, like the Doyles, he believes industries that rely on animals for their livelihoods must stick and work together.
A $9.3-million settlement from ASPCA
You likely heard about the $9.3-million legal settlement to Feld Entertainment agreed upon last December by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). It was to settle all claims related to ASPCA’s part in a decade of litigation that attempted to outlaw elephants in the Ringling Bros. Circus.
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The suit against Feld Entertainment, first initiated in 2000, eventually grew to involve The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), The Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Protection Institute united with Born Free USA, and a former Ringling Bros. employee named Tom Rider. The suit challenged Feld Entertainment for its handling of endangered Asian elephants under the Endangered Species Act, but it was thrown out of court twice, the second time in 2009. That’s when Feld Entertainment sued its adversaries citing violations of the racketeering RICO Actto recover more than $20 million in lawsuit-related costs.
The family-owned company was able to prove that the animal rights groups had paid Rider almost $200,000 for his involvement in the case. ASPCA eventually cried “uncle” and agreed to pay its portion of the damages, but Feld Entertainment says it will continue to press its case against HSUS and the other parties. Learn more at www.ringlingbrostrialinfo.com.
120 cities and 10 million customers
Feld Entertainment presents The Greatest Show On Earth® to more than 10 million people in 120 cities each year. But the family-owned firm also produces a number of other high-profile events, including Disney On Ice, Disney Live, and another half-dozen shows within its Feld Motor Sports division. In July 2014, Feld Entertainment plans to launch its newest production, Marvel Universe Live, the largest Marvel-based superhero and villain show in the world.
Irvin Feld, the patriarch of Feld Entertainment, acquired Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1967. His son Kenneth, the current chairman and CEO, joined the operation in 1970.
The rise of animal activism happened about a decade later. “Things changed with the evolution of these animal rights groups from the traditional support of helping homeless pets to becoming political machines. A lot of that started to rise up in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s,” Payne says.
“There are certain groups that are particularly focused on the policy, legislative and legal aspects of it against us. This has nothing to do with the actual care we provide our animals. It’s the political viewpoint that they hold, and sadly, a lot of them also feel that we’re right and you’re wrong, so they feel that nothing they do is out of bounds.”
He says the operation’s Asian elephants are the biggest focus of activists, “even though they have absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about what it takes to care for an 8,000-lb. animal.” He says The Greatest Show On Earth complies with all federal, state and local regulations, in addition to its own stringent internal animal care guidelines. In more than 40 years of current ownership, Ringling Bros. has never been found in violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act for neglect or mistreatment of its animals, but meets or exceeds all federal animal-welfare standards of animal care and safety.
“Why would Disney have a three-decade relationship with a company that’s not doing the right thing? They trust us with telling their stories; they trust us with their intellectual property. It goes back to the fact that what we’re doing, we’re doing it right. And this political pressure and claims that we don’t aren’t true. Most people when we educate them about it will recognize that.”
That education is part of every Ringling Bros. performance, he adds. “Where it’s possible, we have what’s called an animal open house, and we allow people before the show to see where the animals live, talk to their care providers and ask questions. But one of the big things we also do is have animal care information available at each and every show, because we’re proud of what we do.”
In fact, in 1995, Feld Entertainment established the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. It’s a research, reproduction and retirement facility dedicated to the preservation of the Asian elephant. A total of 25 Asian elephants have been born in the facility, Payne reports, and Ringling Bros. has funded more than a half-million dollars toward research and conservation projects in the past six years.
Payne says Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, is adamant that his operation provide excellent care for its animals, he’s proud of that care, and he’s not about to capitulate to extremists.
That’s a sentiment with which Payne heartily agrees. “The ultimate goal of these groups is to put you out of business. Once you capitulate on one thing, they will define the debate and make more and more demands. That’s true for us with the circus, and that’s true for ranchers. Most Americans, 99.9% of Americans, wouldn’t want to live in the world that these people envision.”
His advice for beef producers is to remain vigilant. “You know what’s best in caring for your animals. Be proud of what you do in production agriculture. You feed the world.
“But also recognize that this is not a stand-alone fight; we are all in this together. All of us have a common interest in doing what’s right for animal welfare and protecting our businesses. We can’t let them define the debate; we’re not doing anything wrong.”
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