Ringling Bros. ‘Elephantgate’

UPDATE March 15, 2006

Despite being presented with extensive evidence of his involvement in a decade-long operation to infiltrate and disrupt the charitable animal protection efforts of PETA and other groups that spoke out against the exploitation and abuse of elephants, tigers, and other exotic animals in the circus, a Fairfax County, Virginia, circuit court jury today did not hold Kenneth Feld, chair and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, liable for the covert operations perpetrated by his senior vice presidents and other staff between 1988 and 1998.

At least three witnesses testified that Feld received reports of the operation throughout the matter. Feld claimed that he didn’t know about it but presented no witnesses in his defense. Testimony made clear that Feld’s senior vice presidents, other senior staff, controller, accountants, and auditors knew of the operation, but Feld claimed that he was kept in the dark.

PETA filed suit against Feld to uncover the details of what it believed was a conspiracy to destroy the animal protection groups that were the most outspoken critics of Ringling’s exploitation and abuse of animals in the circus. Feld’s operation was overseen by Clair George, former head of covert operations for the CIA, who received millions of dollars in payments from Feld and his entities.

The operation was managed by Feld’s senior staff, including Charles Smith, Jerome Sowalsky (longtime general counsel for the Feld entities), Allen Bloom, Andy Ireland, and Joan Galvin, and it was run on a daily basis by a private eye named Richard Froemming, who is now deceased. From 1988 to 1998, Froemming and his several shell entities (with no employees or functions) were paid more than $8.8 million by Feld entities, including I&K Productions, Sells-Floto, and Feld Entertainment, Inc. Upon cross-examination, Feld claimed that he did not know what Froemming and his entities had done for all that money.

Most curious was the fact that these payments, totaling several million dollars, continued to be made to Froemming’s entities after Froemming was hired as a vice president by Feld in 1994 and given an annual salary in excess of a quarter of a million dollars.

As a result of the suit, we pried the lid off nearly 20,000 pages of documents, including reports in the hands of Charles Smith, a former Feld entity CFO and one of the senior executives in charge of the operation. Among the revelations were the following:

  • Between 1988 and 1998, Smith and Froemming placed approximately 16 undercover operatives at PETA, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the Elephant Alliance (EA), In Defense of Animals (IDA), and possibly other animal protection groups.
  • These operatives illegally recorded conversations in California and obtained highly confidential bank account numbers and bank information from Bank of America, credit card information, personal medical information, confidential internal financial records, and personnel information. This information was used to thwart the animal protection groups in their charitable efforts to communicate their message of Ringling’s exploitation and abuse of animals.
  • One of the main operatives, Steven Kendall, infiltrated and took control of Putting People First (PPF) and repeatedly misrepresented himself to the public, denying any affiliation with Feld or Ringling Bros., despite being their paid operative. Kendall also used an apparently stolen check from the EA in what was described in court as a scheme to extort a California state senator into removing an elephant-protection bill that he had introduced. Kendall also acknowledged receiving a confidential list of PETA contacts across the United States and using the list to interfere with PETA’s anti-circus demonstrations and to try to cause PETA to lose members. Kendall also admitted to getting a job covertly at the office of a Toronto City Council member and to obtaining confidential documents from that office in his efforts in behalf of the circus to defeat an animal-protection bill in Toronto that would have helped animals exploited in the circus.The operative at PAWS was Julie Lewis, who also infiltrated IDA and the EA. Kendall admitted that it was Lewis who carried the equipment to conduct illegal recordings of conversations. Lewis also attempted to infiltrate PETA but did not succeed. In addition to Lewis, another operative, named Anita Walker, infiltrated the EA using the name Catherine Stevens. She also infiltrated PETA and removed confidential documents. The operatives also gained confidential inside information regarding efforts by PAWS and PETA to fight the lawsuit brought against them by Bobby Berosini, who was caught on tape beating orangutans before his Las Vegas shows to make them more compliant on stage.
  • The contracts between the Feld entities and the Froemming shell companies required that all reports, documents, photos, and videos that detailed the operatives’ activities be destroyed, a requirement that Feld and Smith admitted was not in any other contracts that they had ever signed.
  • Feld admitted to receiving regular weekly reports about the operation beginning in January 1993 but further admitted upon cross-examination that he knew of the operation and had discussions about it with his senior personnel as early as 1990. Feld had no explanation for the whereabouts of his copies of the reports and their attachments that he had received over several years. None of those reports were produced by him.

Apparently, the jury believed Feld’s claim that he was ignorant of this multimillion-dollar, decade-long operation that was run right under his nose by the former head of covert operations for the CIA. Even though Feld will not be held personally responsible, it is undeniable that PETA’s suit has exposed to the entire world, in an open court of law, just how low the people running the circus will go to protect the profits that line their pockets—at the expense of animals and the committed charities that work to expose the horrors that animals endure in the circus.

Ringling cannot conceal its long and shameful history of neglect and animal abuse. Ringling has repeatedly failed to meet minimum standards for animal care as established by the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). It paid $20,000 to settle charges of failure to provide veterinary care to a dying baby elephant and is currently the subject of four investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for possible violations of the AWA: a December 2005 incident in which two elephants ran amok inside an arena in Puerto Rico, with one elephant reportedly sustaining a bone-deep gash; the death of a 2-year-old lion named Clyde, who apparently died of heatstroke while traveling through the Mojave Desert in a poorly ventilated boxcar; the death of an 8-month-old elephant named Riccardo, who was destroyed after fracturing both hind legs when he fell off a circus pedestal; and the excessive use of a sharp steel-tipped bullhook on a chained elephant, which was caught on videotape.

While Feld was spending millions of dollars on infiltrating animal rights groups, his animals were going without the most basic necessities. Between 1990 and 1997, Ringling was cited repeatedly by the USDA for keeping dogs, bears, and primates in cramped, undersized cages; for failure to repair or replace severely deteriorating elephant boxcars and rusty cages; for failure to provide veterinary care and to maintain medical and routine husbandry records; and for failure to dispose of expired medications.

Ringling was also cited for failure to provide environmental enrichment to primates exhibiting psychological distress, and Ringling’s vet, Dr. Houck, nagged USDA inspectors so effectively not to cite the circus for the grossly inadequate tank space for its hippopotamus that it was listed as “not evaluated.” Inspectors also found elephants with hair loss and tissue damage on their legs from chaining. Exhibits from the trial reveal that elephant trainers used “hot shots” (electric shock devices) on elephants and that a beating of an elephant named Juno left her with 22 bullhook wounds.

Ringling’s elephants are jabbed with bullhooks in the mouth and on the sensitive skin behind their ears, and some elephants limp out of cramped boxcars because of stiff joints caused by prolonged chaining and long days on the road. In the wild, these elephants would walk up to 30 miles a day.

You can help end this abuse by never attending a circus that uses animals. There are lots of animal-friendly entertainment options to choose from. Tell Ringling that animal abuse is not entertaining by using your money to support cruelty-free shows instead.

UPDATE March 2006

Professional dancer Jodey Eliseo toured with Ringling Bros. for two years. When she saw coverage of the trial of Ringling CEO Kenneth Feld, she wanted to share her recollections of the horrific abuse of elephants by Ringling handlers. Eliseo told PETA how she had seen Ringling handlers beat an elephant for stumbling during a performance; an elephant forced to perform with a huge infected boil that covered half her leg; teenage elephant Sophie covered with bullhook wounds from constant beatings; and a baby elephant who was severely beaten as punishment for running amok and smashing through a wall at a civic center.

Eliseo also wrote to Chicago Alderman Mary Ann Smith in support of the Elephant Protection Ordinance currently under consideration, which would ban bullhooks and other weapons from being used against elephants in Chicago.

Read Eliseo’s letter.

UPDATE March 2006

The court heard opening arguments in PETA v. Feld et al., as well as the testimony of key witnesses, including Charles F. Smith, former chief financial officer of Feld Entertainment, who admitted to hiring a private investigator to monitor PETA and other animal rights groups.

Read more about the trial:

The Washington Post
USA Today

UPDATE February 2006

The highly anticipated trial of Ringling CEO Kenneth Feld begins on February 27. The Circuit Court of Fairfax County (Virginia) will hear how Feld and his operatives, including the former head of covert operations for the CIA, used misrepresentation, illegal electronic surveillance, and stolen PETA documents as part of a conspiracy designed to destroy PETA and other animal protection organizations.

Read PETA’s lawsuit.

Read PETA’s news release.

UPDATE December 2005

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David T. Stitt imposed sanctions against Kenneth Feld for failing to turn over evidence to PETA in a timely manner. The judge ordered Feld to disclose his net worth and provide an unredacted copy of a 30-page document called “Ringling Bros. Long Term Animal Welfare Plan Draft 5.” The document appears to spell out Ringling’s plans to attempt to discredit PETA and join forces with cockfighters and members of other industries that oppose PETA’s efforts.

UPDATE November 2005

In a major break in PETA’s lawsuits against Kenneth Feld and his coconspirators, the Circuit Court of Fairfax County (Virginia) has entered a judgment against Steven Kendall, a top Feld operative. Kendall has admitted in public documents to PETA’s allegations against both himself and Feld, including theft and an extensive conspiracy to discredit the animal rights group. The trial of Kenneth Feld and a hearing to determine an award of damages against Kendall is scheduled for February 2006. As a result of the judgment, Kendall is deemed to have admitted the following:

  • Feld operatives were aided in the conspiracy by former CIA Covert Operations Director Clair George.
  • Kendall stole a PETA computer and its files. Feld operatives also stole information and confidential documents from PETA.
  • Kendall and circus operatives used illegal means—including extortion, burglaries, theft, and surveillance—to accomplish their tasks.
  • Kendall has attempted to blackmail Feld in exchange for his silence about his illegal activities by demanding that Feld pay him $6 million.

Read PETA’s news release.

UPDATE September 2005

In a victory for PETA in its lawsuit against Kenneth Feld, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David T. Stitt has imposed sanctions totaling $51,305 to be paid to PETA against prominent Washington, D.C., law firm Williams & Connolly as well as Fairfax, Virginia, law firm Blankingship & Keith, which represented Feld in the lawsuit. Judge Stitt ordered the payments after Feld’s attorneys accused the court of misconduct and interfered with a court-ordered deposition. One of Feld’s attorneys was also held in contempt of court for violating court orders compelling the deposition of self-confessed Ringling spy Steven Kendall of Pittsburgh. The judge removed a second attorney from the case, stating, “[T]he conduct of the defense of this case generally to date has reflected a very inadequate understanding of Virginia’s ethical requirements.”

Read PETA’s news release.

May 2002

Ringling Bros. and Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, have been waging an illegal campaign to try to discredit those who criticize the circus’s dismal treatment of animals. Now PETA is fighting back.

PETA has filed suit in Fairfax County (Virginia) Circuit Court against Kenneth Feld, chair and CEO of Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and three others for “surreptitious and illegal behavior with respect to surveilling and investigating individuals and entities such as PETA.” PETA contends that Feld and three others named in the suit improperly conspired to obtain business documents belonging to PETA and illegally tap telephones as part of a campaign to thwart criticism of their abuse of animals, including retaliation for PETA’s campaign to expose Ringling’s cruel separation of baby elephants from their mothers and other forms of abuse.

So desperate was Ringling to improve its tarnished image that it even hired former CIA operative Clair George, who was once responsible for the CIA’s covert operations worldwide. Now George has come clean. In sworn court testimony and published reports, he and other operatives say that Feld Entertainment officials ordered and paid for illegal spying, wiretapping, videotaping, harassment, and theft of private documents. Among their targets: PETA.

George’s job was to review reports from other spies “based on their surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of” PETA and other groups. These spies wrongfully took hundreds of pages of private documents, including personnel and payroll records, and attempted—unsuccessfully—to gather information to harm our work to end animal suffering.

Among the Evidence

Ringling indicated that it would support Bobby Berosini, a tawdry Las Vegas hotel performer who repeatedly beat orangutans with a metal bar before taking them on stage (click here to see video). When PETA exposed Berosini’s vicious treatment of these sensitive primates, Feld urged Berosini to sue PETA and promised that Ringling Bros. would pay any damages.

  • Ringling secretly supported the activities of the now-defunct Putting People First, an outfit whose sole aim was to discredit animal rights activists.
  • Feld hired another spy, according to court testimony, who, with George’s help, successfully kept a freelance writer from publishing a tell-all book exposing Feld family and Ringling Bros. Circus secrets. According to a lawsuit filed separately, Feld’s hired gun “befriended” the writer to persuade her to stop working on the Feld book and write a different one instead. George even found a publisher for this other book and funneled a cash advance from Feld through the publisher to pay the unsuspecting writer. This publisher also approached PETA asking to collaborate on an inside look at the animal rights movement—an offer we refused!

You can help stop the suffering of elephants, tigers, and other animals abused in the name of entertainment. Sign PETA’s petition to stop circus cruelty today!

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