Abuse Claims

USDA Complaint Is PETA’s Latest Salvo in War Against Ringling Bros.

The animal rights group’s drawn-out war on Ringling Bros. has a new front. Lloyd Grove reports.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the militant animal rights group best known as PETA, has been trying for more than a decade to put the circus out of business. The arduous war between PETA and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, a global enterprise that has trademarked the slogan “The Greatest Show on Earth,” has deployed every tactic from guerrilla action to expensive litigation.

At issue is PETA’s claim, vehemently denied by Ringling Bros., that The Greatest Show on Earth has demonstrated a conspicuous pattern of negligence and cruelty toward its animal-entertainers, violating the federal Animal Welfare Act and leaving a grisly trail of beaten, drowned, and otherwise mistreated elephants, who allegedly died under their masters’ abuse, and a baked-to-death lion, who perished aboard a Ringling Bros. rail car in the Mojave Desert. Then, PETA alleges, Ringling Bros. hid evidence to cover up the humans’ misdeeds.

In PETA’s latest salvo, it is targeting a former enforcement official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the treatment of animal-performers and controls the granting of exhibitors’ licenses. Nine months after his retirement from the government, former USDA assistant general counsel Kenneth H. Vail has turned up as the Animal Welfare Act compliance officer of Virginia-based Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.’ multibillion-dollar parent company—which he formerly regulated. PETA is requesting that USDA’s inspector general launch a conflict-of-interest investigation into Vail, who retired in May 2011 after four decades at the agency and joined Feld Entertainment this past February.

“While at the USDA, Vail received numerous recommendations from the USDA’s Investigative and Enforcement Services to initiate proceedings against Feld Entertainment…for beating and abusively and negligently causing the deaths of animals and withholding evidence from the agency, yet no meaningful action was ever taken,” claims PETA’s 41-page complaint to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong. “Now Vail has taken a job with Ringling,” the complaint continues, arguing that Vail, while at the USDA, “allowed the company to get away with repeated, egregious violations of the AWA for more than a decade [and] appears to have thwarted AWA enforcement action against the company—[raising] the specter of impropriety.” A spokesman for the USDA inspector general declined to comment on PETA’s complaint.

Reached at his office, Vail told me that he’s been aware of his unenviable position in PETA’s crosshairs at least since March 2011, when the animal rights group sent his USDA boss a letter accusing Vail, among other officials, of “dereliction of duty” and giving “improper preferential treatment” to Ringling Bros and Feld Entertainment. Vail declined to respond to PETA’s allegations. But Stephen Payne, Feld Entertainment’s corporate communications chief, offered a rousing defense of his new coworker.

“My initial reaction is that it’s a contemptible piece of fiction,” Payne said of PETA’s complaint, which was brought to his attention by The Daily Beast. “All it does is defame a man who has spent 40-plus years as a dedicated public servant for the USDA. The allegations it contains are absurd. That we found out about this from the press—aka you—before we ever heard about it from the agency is yet another example of PETA’s behavior to engage in a media stunt because they can’t get their way.” He added that the company could consider legal action against PETA for defamation of Vail.

PETA’s complaint against Vail, assembled through Freedom of Information Act requests and from sources within the federal agency, includes a claim that he disregarded staff recommendations that Ringling Bros. be fined $11,825 for allowing Clyde, a two-year-old lion, to bake to death in a boxcar as the circus traveled through the Mojave Desert at the height of summer; Vail also allegedly delayed assigning the case until the statute of limitations for punishment had run its course.

PETA also claims that Vail ignored staff recommendations to penalize the circus for killing Riccardo, an eight-month-old baby elephant, by forcing him onto a pedestal using rope and a bullhook. “During this circus training exercise, Riccardo slipped from the pedestal, breaking both hind legs, which required his destruction,” the complaint adds.

In another incident, the complaint alleges, Vail ignored evidence that a baby elephant named Benjamin drowned in a pond due to negligence and abuse by his trainer, and scrubbed his report of the USDA investigator’s conclusion that the trainer’s use of a bullhook to control the animal “created behavior stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal.” Vail also allegedly omitted eyewitness testimony that Benjamin was regularly beaten by his Ringling Bros. trainer.

In an interview last year with Mother Jones magazine for an article headlined, “The Cruelest Show on Earth,” Vail acknowledged that the life of a circus elephant is no bed of roses. “If I were an elephant, I wouldn’t want to be with Feld Entertainment,” he told the magazine. “It’s a tough life.” Payne, however, said he disagrees. “I wouldn’t mind being one of our elephants,” he told me. “They get better heath care than we do.”

PETA official Delcianna Winders retorted: “I certainly hope this is not the case, given Feld’s numerous citations for denying animals adequate veterinary care.” As for Payne’s derisive assessment of the charges in PETA’s complaint, Winders responded that “PETA’s investigation request was drafted with the utmost of care and all assertions made are fully supported by the evidence.”

Payne said Vail was hired by Feld Entertainment as part of a Nov. 28, 2011, settlement agreement with the USDA arising from alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act dating from June 2007 to August 2011. Under the terms of the settlement, Feld Entertainment paid $270,000 in civil penalties, the largest such fine on record, and agreed “to establish an AWA compliance position on its staff by February 28, 2012”—the month Vail joined the company—“to implement annual AWA compliance training for all employees who work with and handle animals.” As PETA notes in its complaint, the USDA didn’t bring such severe proceedings against Feld Entertainment until after Vail had left the agency.

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Payne said the company decided not to fight the allegations and instead paid the penalty, a tiny fraction of its nearly $1 billion in annual revenue, to avoid a drawn-out legal battle that could threaten the circus’s ability to operate. “We did not agree with the findings,” Payne said, “but the USDA holds our exhibitors’ license, and [settling] was in our best interest.”