By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A major animal welfare group has agreed to pay $9.3 million to the owners of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to settle a lawsuit brought in response to now-dismissed legal claims of mistreated elephants.
The settlement, announced by the parties on Friday, removes the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, from litigation by Ringling Bros. against the Humane Society, the Animal Welfare Institute and a former elephant handler for the circus.
The ASPCA and others originally filed suit in 2000 against Feld Entertainment, producer of the circus, accusing the Virginia-based company of mistreating the Asian elephants that perform in its shows.
The case, which cited the Endangered Species Act, was initially dismissed.
But an appellate court allowed the former elephant handler, Tom Rider, to pursue an individual claim that he was emotionally injured by the company's treatment of its elephants. Rider was responsible for watching over and feeding the elephants while working for the circus as a "barn man" between 1997 and 1999.
Following a trial in 2009, a District of Columbia district court judge ruled in favor of Feld Entertainment, finding that Rider had overstated his love of elephants and was not a sufficiently credible plaintiff for the case to proceed.
The judge declared Rider to be essentially a "paid plaintiff," finding that his only source of income during the previous eight years had been the animal-welfare groups involved in the case and media companies producing reports about it.
Feld Entertainment, in turn, sued the various animal welfare groups and Rider, accusing them of abuse of process, malicious prosecution and violation of federal racketeering laws through unfounded litigation.
ASPCA President Ed Sayres said his group decided it was in its best interest to settle the dispute and that the agreement was not an admission of wrongdoing.
"We are glad to put this matter behind us so we can focus most effectively on our life-saving work, preventing cruelty and improving the welfare of animals," he said in a statement, noting that the courts never ruled on "the merits of the elephant abuse allegations."
Kenneth Feld, chairman of Feld Entertainment, which says its shows are seen by 30 million people a year, called the original litigation an attempt to destroy a family-owned business.
"Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses," he said in a statement. "This settlement is a vindication ... for the dedicated men and women who spend their lives working and caring for all the animals with Ringling Bros."
The circus currently has 45 elephants, most of which were born in captivity, and has met or exceeded legal requirements regarding the animals' welfare, company spokesman Steve Payne said.
(Writing and reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Steve Gorman and Bill Trott)