By Delcianna J. Winders, PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel for Captive Animal Law Enforcement
Early last week, while I sat at work with my dachshund, Littles, by my side, another dachshund, Journey, found herself in the jaws of an escaped tiger who was roaming the streets of Henry County, Georgia. Journey survived the ordeal. The tiger, Suzy, didn’t. She was gunned down by police after escaping from Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros. circus’s parent company, which was transporting her, along with about a dozen other big cats, to be shipped off to Germany and forced to perform in yet another circus. Feld, it seems, didn’t even realize that Suzy was missing until, hours after her escape, circus personnel began hearing reports that a stray tiger had been shot dead.
Having worked in behalf of animals used and abused to line Ringling’s pockets for about a decade, I wasn’t surprised by the violent end to yet another life. Dozens of animals have met their demise on the company’s watch. Consider Arnie, a tiger shot dead at close range by a Ringling handler wielding a 12-gauge shotgun while the animal was locked in a cage. Or Clyde, a lion who baked to death in a poorly ventilated boxcar crossing the Mojave Desert.
Nor did the reckless endangerment of other lives come as a shock to me. Journey’s guardian expressed relief that her young children weren’t outside when Suzy appeared. Other humans haven’t been so lucky. Captive tigers, lions and other big cats, who are apex predators, kill about one American every year and injure many more. When a woman put her hand into a cage in a Ringling staging area, a lion helped himself to her finger. Another bit a man who tried to pet him. Even trainers aren’t immune to attacks. One Ringling trainer sustained severe injuries when a tiger dragged him around the ring by his head. Another was seriously mauled by a tiger who clawed his neck and side, and a third was hospitalized with injuries inflicted by a lion.
Without question, Feld has blood on its hands. But it’s not the only one to blame—the U.S. government is responsible, too. But for the government’s actions, Suzy never would have been hauled through Georgia in the first place. She and her fellow captives are members of imperiled species, entitled to special protections under the law. Exporting them is prohibited, unless doing so would help the species’ survival in the wild. Even then, the government must ensure their humane treatment.
Before granting Feld permission to deviate from the law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was legally required to notify the public and to seek our input. When it did so, public opinion was resoundingly clear: The agency should decline to issue a permit. Thousands and thousands of members of the public submitted comments to this effect, as did nongovernmental organizations.
Legally, FWS must weigh the opinions and views of experts. PETA, in coalition with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, submitted 64 pages of comments, supported by more than 300 exhibits, meticulously detailing that Feld does not meet permit requirements. The comments explained not only that authorizing the export of imperiled animals for use in circus acts would not contribute to species survival in the wild but also that the scientific literature shows that such an authorization would likely harm legitimate conservation efforts.
It wasn’t just animal advocates who weighed in. Dr. Brian Hare, a Harvard-educated Duke University professor with expertise in the effects that media portrayals of animals have on public perception, urged denial of the permit, noting, based on his scholarship, that the use of endangered animals for entertainment presents a “major threat” to the conservation community because it causes the public to believe that wild animals make good “pets” and don’t need protection in the wild. Jessica Bell Rizzolo, a scholar who has researched and written about circus messaging, likewise registered her “strong opposition” to permit issuance, explaining, based on her scholarship, that “[t]he use of animals in circuses is fundamentally irreconcilable with the promotion of conservation attitudes.” Two dozen members of Congress also opposed the permit application, underscoring its “clear lack of conservation benefit.”
And yet, though FWS can lawfully issue a permit only after considering these views—and only after determining that the export would, in fact, enhance conservation—the agency brazenly defied these mandates. It made clear from the get-go that it had no intention of abiding by its statutory duties: Records recently obtained pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act reveal that just one day after publishing notice of the permit application and seeking public comment, the agency assured Feld that it would be able to finalize the application just as soon as the comment period closed, indicating that it never actually intended to consider the content of the comments received.
And just two weeks after the comment period ended, FWS announced that it had decided that it would, indeed, authorize the export. Despite the thousands of comments from concerned Americans, and despite the hundreds of hours that experts spent carefully preparing comments, newly obtained records reveal FWS’ utter disregard for the people the law tells it to listen to: “We received no comments that provided a substantive comment on the negative or positive impacts” of issuing the permits, internal agency records assert. “There were no comments from scientists or other persons or organizations having expertise” on the impact of authorizing the export of imperiled animals for use in a circus, they continue.
I expect a profit-mongering, animal-exploiting corporation to disregard conservation and animal welfare. I expect better from our government—and the law requires better. FWS must atone for Suzy’s death and do right by the surviving big cats still slated for export to Germany by revoking the export permit that it should never have issued in the first place.
Delcianna J. Winders is the PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel for Captive Animal Law Enforcement. She was the first-ever academic fellow for Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Program. Follow her on Twitter: @DelciannaW.