The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals by Wayne Pacelle describes a revolution in American business and public policy that is changing forever how we treat animals and conduct commerce. Below is an excerpt from the book, which is available for pre-order now.
With elephants at the very center of the company brand of Ringling Bros., the news [that it will retire the animals] was something like the fall of the Berlin wall for the animal protection movement. Relative to factory farming or animal testing, circuses use few animals—perhaps tens of thousands, if you add them up all over the world, as compared to millions and billions in the biggest of animal-use industries. But the symbolism was incomparable because you'd be hard pressed to find a kid who hasn't attended a circus; it's been something of a cultural rite of passage for a child to go to Ringling, which each year spent millions to draw in kids by advertising elephants as the featured performers. Precisely because it was Ringling, the decision to stop using elephants had—like the animals themselves—special force and weight. No other circus had Ringling's resources or resolve in defending the animal-based circus as a business model—sparing no expense in enlisting lawyers and lobbyists to fight reform at every turn. With Ringling finally closing the curtain on this act, the politics of using elephants in circuses—and perhaps even other wild animals, too—was upended. It was a signal moment in the progress of the humane economy, demonstrating that even the most familiar and supposedly benign forms of cruelty can eventually give way to change for the better.
It had not been a smooth road, however. Over the years, Ringling's Ken Feld earned a reputation for ruthlessness and cunning in dealing with his adversaries. In the early 1990s, Feld hired Clair George, a former deputy director of operations for the Central Intelligence Agency, to lead a series of clandestine operations to gather intelligence on his foes and to distract or disrupt them. One target was Janice Pottker, a freelancer who wrote a 10,000-word piece on Feld Entertainment for the Washington, D.C., area business magazine Regardie's. When Pottker signaled that she wanted to dig in deeper and write a book about the Feld family, Feld unleashed Clair George. George in turn enlisted an operative, Robert Eringer, to befriend Pottker and disrupt her project, according to thousands of pages of documents unsealed in a later legal dispute. This intrigue directed against a largely unknown journalist was an eight-year gambit for Feld. It was utterly disproportionate and overreaching—Pottker estimates that Feld spent $3 million on the surveillance and disruption effort.
George, who had been drummed out of the CIA after his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, also allegedly oversaw the infiltration by Feld operatives of at least two animal protection groups critical of the circus—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Feld got into protracted legal fights with both of those groups, ultimately paying PAWS an undisclosed financial settlement and giving the group several Ringling elephants, who were retired to the organization's California sanctuary. Subsequently, Feld became embroiled in a legal bout with a another set of animal welfare groups, which sued Ringling for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act by routinely chaining, beating and abusing Asian elephants. That case, originally led by the ASPCA, Animal Welfare Institute and The Fund for Animals, lasted all of 14 years, and in the end turned out well for Feld. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan denied the animal protection groups standing to sue and never ruled on the merits of the original claim against the circus. As was customary for Feld when he felt threatened, he went on the offense, filing a civil RICO case against the animal welfare groups. The legal saga—both the original case filed by animal organizations and then the civil RICO claim by Feld—was settled just 10 months before Ringling's announcement to retire the elephants. The animal groups (including The HSUS, which was brought into the case after it combined operations with an original plaintiff, The Fund for Animals) ended up paying Feld's legal fees but did not admit to any of Feld's far-fetched claims in the RICO suit; in fact, the litigation only exposed some further damning information about the treatment of animals by Ringling.
So how could a guy willing to go to these lengths—spending millions on public relations, infiltration efforts, and endless litigation—pivot so sharply, especially after his most recent lawsuit went his way? It may have been fatigue from decades of battle over animal welfare issues against both animal groups and government regulators. In November 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Ringling $270,000 to settle numerous alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including forcing an injured elephant to perform, allowing animal escapes and losing control of an elephant inside a crowded arena. The fine against Ringling—though inconsequential against Feld Entertainment's hundreds of millions in revenue—was nonetheless the largest animal welfare penalty ever meted out in the agency's history and a black mark against the company.
But more likely Ken Feld was looking ahead—seeing no end to the political fight, with more local ordinances [against bull hooks, the cruel instruments used to train elephants] expected to germinate throughout the country. Feld may have recognized that the American public had become alert to the plight of captive elephants and didn't want any part in their mistreatment.
... Through the years, Feld and animal advocates did agree on one thing: Asian elephants are extraordinary in so many ways, with their gargantuan size, long and dexterous trunks (operated by 40,000 muscles) and ability to fascinate people with their very presence. They had, for decades, been the not-so-secret sauce in Ringling's formula for success, as well as the main provocation to animal advocates. Ringling had long traded on the public's fascination and love for pachyderms, but that made the business vulnerable, since there was a backstory of exploitation that had the potential to alienate the fans who came, in large part, because of their affection for elephants. The circus, like other enterprises that use and harm animals, is involved in a sort of never-ending cover-up—using all the right rhetoric in talking about its devotion to the animals and its high-caliber animal care, even as its handlers beat the animals with bull hooks and kept them in chains.
... It isn't so much the handling of the animals during a live performance, but what happens before and afterwards, in the shadows where nobody's around to watch.