The courtroom can be a real circus these days. Okay, that was me stretching to make a clever pun out of a very interesting story from the annals of the animal rights movement - I promise I won't try it again.
Here's the crux of the story: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reached a legal settlement with Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, in which ASPCA has paid Feld $9.3 million to resolve extensive litigation over how the circus handles and treats elephants.
Feld's suit against the ASPCA - and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which was not a party to the settlement - traces back more than a decade and involves a sordid tale of animal rights groups paying a witness who alleged that Ringling Bros. mistreated the elephants in its care. As reported by my Feedstuffs colleague Rod Smith:
ASPCA brought a lawsuit against Feld in July 2000 charging that the circus -- the "Greatest Show on Earth" -- handled elephants inhumanely using chains and hooks in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
ASPCA was joined in its suit by co-plaintiffs the Animal Protection Institute, Animal Welfare Institute (d/b/a as Born Free USA) and Fund for Animals, which merged with HSUS in 2004.
The lawsuit, heard by Judge Emmet Sullivan in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C., dragged on for several years and was based largely on testimony by Rider, who was a caretaker for the circus's elephants in the late 1990s.
In December 2009, Sullivan found for Feld, ruling that Rider's testimony was conflicting and "not credible" and that he was "essentially a paid" witness who received more than $190,000 from the plaintiffs.
Feld subsequently brought charges against the plaintiffs and their attorneys under the Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act seeking damages for bribery, fraud and money laundering (Feedstuffs, March 1, 2010). Feld said it spent $20 million to defend itself, and damages can be tripled under the RICO Act.
Feld's suit against HSUS and others involved in the original allegations continues, but ASPCA apparently decided it was in their best interest to settle and move on. Walter Olson, a legal analyst with the conservative Cato Institute, questioned why "advocacy groups" like ASPCA and HSUS are allowed to use their tax-free status as charities to raise funds for lawsuits like the one against Feld:
Not so incidentally, the ASPCA (like its rival Humane Society of the United States, which declined to settle and remains a defendant in the countersuit) functions mainly as a national advocacy organization — not a vehicle for supporting local shelters and rescue groups, which are mostly on their own financially. Donors, not all of whom are necessarily aware of that fact, collectively give the ASPCA more than $100 million a year — which leaves the group big enough to weather this setback.
Still, $9.3 million would buy an awful lot of flea collars, and that the group was willing to spend so much to settle suggests it saw a significant potential for liability.
You might wonder why suing people counts as the sort of charitable endeavor deserving of tax deductibility. Good question. Not until 1970 did the Treasury Department, in response to a big PR campaign, decide that “cause” litigation as an activity deserves charitable status.
Spearheading that PR campaign was none other than the American Bar Association: What more authentic way to express the benevolent spirit of charity, after all, than to create more jobs for lawyers?
Olson is not the only expert questioning the definition of "charity" as applied by activist groups in the animal rights and environmental arenas. A recent report by USA Today examined groups that are often rated poorly by organizations who analyze and "grade" various philanthropic organizations, and noted that HSUS is not treated kindly by one of the top such ratings services, Charity Watch.
[CharityWatch founder and President Daniel] Borochoff says someone who really wanted to help animals should contribute elsewhere. While BBB accredits HSUS, which paid for its seal, CharityWatch gives HSUS a D in large part because so much of every dollar donated goes to raise more money.
"If you like getting those mailings and want to pay for more of them, support the Humane Society," says Borochoff. "It you want to give more for programs or services that benefit animals and advocate better rules and protections for animals, they are not a good target because the portion of their budget they give to these programs is too small."
Nathan Winograd, an author and prominent advocate of "no-kill" animal shelters, says the disagreement is emblematic of a larger problem with HSUS.
"Only the leadership of HSUS could contrive fundraising letters as program expenses," Winograd says. "If they actually spent as much time, energy and money on saving animals as they now only pretend to, not only would they not have to cover up their failures to do so with these kind of mental gymnastics, they could truly be the heroes they now only pretend to be."
HSUS chief Wayne Pacelle told USA Today that the amount spent on fundraising as opposed to actual programs is a "very interesting and useful ratio to look at, but it falls far short of any serious-minded analysis of a charity." He argues that a better barometer would be looking at a charity's "influence."
But what exactly defines "influence" in the context of charitable giving? To take the question a step further, should "influence" be a tax-deductible expenditure?
For many involved in agriculture, this is among the primary criticisms of HSUS and their ilk; the organizations are well-known for raising funds using advertising depicting neglected dogs and cats, implying that supporting their group will benefit local animal shelters. It has become relatively well accepted that supporting animal shelters is not actually a stated goal of HSUS, nor something they do much of in practice.
Why then should those concerned about animals support HSUS and others like them? Pacelle would appear to argue that HSUS broad base of support and vast hoards of cash contributions indicates donors value HSUS' "influence," through all the various campaigns, tactics and antics that term may imply.
If the ASPCA/Feld settlement is any indication, however, "advocacy groups" may need to rethink their strategy somewhat, although it is clear that using the courts is but one of the tactics the animal rights movement has employed over the past 20 years. Unquestionably successful at employing state ballot initiatives to force changes in laws regarding livestock housing, HSUS has worked to exert its influence in Congress and state legislatures as well, though with less obvious victories.