The intent was to finish my book on the Ringling Brothers animal welfare court cases by year-end. After all, the cases have settled down into an analysis of legal fees, and long, silent periods reflecting discovery, with a trial date a year or two (or three) into the future. Publish now, incorporate an epilog into the e-book when all is said and done, and I’ll have managed to write about an ongoing legal case and still keep readers updated.
Then I found out Tom Rider died, and everything has changed.
Who is Tom Rider? There are, in my opinion, four people pivotal to these court cases: Kenneth Feld, who is owner of Ringling Brothers circus; Judge Emmet Sullivan, who presided over both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Case and the beginnings of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case; John Simpson, Feld’s lead attorney, who decided after coming into the ESA case that the best defense was an aggressive offense; and Tom Rider, the only individual plaintiff in the ESA case. Not only was Tom the only individual plaintiff, but he was a key witness: a man who could testify from first-hand experience about how Ringling Brothers people treated the elephants.
Tom’s importance as both plaintiff and witness made him a big legal target in the court case; a rather daunting place to be for a man who never imagined he’d spend the last years of his life in a court fight over circus elephants.
Tom Rider was born in a small, rural town in Illinois. He wasn’t an especially ambitious man, dropping out of high school, and having his ups and downs in the military. He typically didn’t stay at any job for long. He hauled garbage, sold shoes, was a bouncer at a strip club, worked at Disneyworld for a time, got married, and divorced, and kicked around the country doing odd jobs. Eventually, he ended up as “barn man” for the Ringling Brothers circus.
A circus barn man is someone who helps feed the animals, give them their water, and shovel shit. With elephants, a lot of shit. But Tom stayed with the job two and a half years—longer than he stayed with most jobs. He liked working in the circus. He liked that he had his own little cubby hole of a place in the “Pie Car”, which was the train car that contained the circus kitchen. He liked the idea of working for the circus. After all, think about it: working for a circus. Now, how cool is that? If we’re defined by what we do, there are worse things than working for a circus.
Tom was a plain man, some would even say he was a crude man. He peppered his speech with less than polite terms, primarily watched knock ’em, sock ’em action movies, and liked junk food—especially Hostess confections like Snoballs and birch beer (a southern variation of root beer).
Tom also liked to talk and to tell stories. He liked to tell one story about his time at Ringling Brothers and his experience with one of the elephants, Karen.
Not all elephants react with docility to being dressed up in costumes and made to dance to rock and roll tunes. Some elephants, like *Karen, express their unhappiness in ways that can be detrimental to human beings. American circus history is littered with the dead and broken bodies of those people who have experienced elephant frustration, fear, and anger. Though Karen hasn’t yet left a trail of dead bodies in her wake, at Ringling Brothers she is treated with a great deal of caution.
The story Tom liked to tell about Karen was the time she trapped him in a bathroom when the circus was in Boston. Tom was in the bathroom cleaning it when Karen planted herself in front of the door so he couldn’t get out. Tom was stuck for 15 minutes, banging on the door, hollering for Karen to get her butt out of the way, until he got the idea to throw his broom through the door to distract Karen. It worked.
Once Tom was out, though, Karen started tossing hay and apples at Tom, peeved at his escape. I can just visualize that great big elephant, delicately grabbing an apple with her trunk, and lobbing it at Tom as he went about his work. When Tom recounted the story, he probably referred to Karen as a “bitch”, as in, “That bitch had me trapped in the bathroom for 15 minutes! And then she started tossing apples at me!”
When I told Roomie the story, he laughed. I laughed, it’s a funny story. But in the DC courts, an innocent story became a weapon in the hands of an aggressive legal defense.
Feld’s lawyer, John Simpson zeroed in on Tom’s use of “bitch”, because how could Tom care about the elephants and talk about Karen that way? To say she’s dangerous (she is); that she didn’t like him (she probably doesn’t like most Ringling employees), and especially—and this is the ultimate sin—to call her a bitch in his story if Tom truly cared for Karen?
From the trial, with Simpson cross-examining Tom:
Q. Do you recall making — that same film where you made a video of the bags of poop, do you recall also making a video of the elephant Karen?
A. Yes, I do.
Q. You called her a bitch, did you not?
Q. It wasn’t in loving terms, was it?
A. It was not a derogatory term. I didn’t say, you know — I wouldn’t use rough language. I did call her — it’s like bitch, nice, it was — I was thinking of the time in Boston when it happened.
Q. So you called her a nice bitch, is that your testimony?
A. No, I called her a bitch.
Q. Well, let me refer you to that tape, sir, Defendant’s Exhibit 30, at counter 16:45 to 16:55.
Q. So your testimony, sir, was that was a compliment you were giving the elephant?
A. Yes, I mean it was not a derogatory term. I called my daughter that.
Q. You call your daughters a bitch?
A. Oh, yeah.
Q. They don’t take offense to it?
Judge Emmet Sullivan presided over the ESA case in the federal district court in DC.
Judge Sullivan is interesting in that he’s never lived outside of the Washington DC area. He was born in DC, grew up in DC (the son of a DC policeman), went to school at Howard University in DC, practiced law in DC, and is now a judge in a DC federal court room. This is a man who has had very limited experience of what passes for life outside of DC. He certainly has had very little experience with someone like Tom Rider: a largely uneducated circus roustabout from the midwest.
Judge Sullivan is also a rather impetuous man. He’s best known for his anger at the Department of Justice in the Senator Stevens’ trial, where he took the unprecedented move to open an investigation into the DoJ’s actions. Another time, he felt a police officer wasn’t telling the truth and walked off the bench—an act that led to a mistrial.
During the trial of a burglary suspect in the mid-1980s, Sullivan walked off the bench in disgust after a police officer gave conflicting testimony, said Roscoe Howard, a friend, and former federal prosecutor. After calming down, Sullivan declared a mistrial because he had prejudiced the case. A few days later, the judge reversed course and released the man.
All three traits that best exemplify Judge Sullivan—his noticeably narrow background, his strong, even at times, intolerant moral code, and his impetuousness—were present in the ESA trial. In particular, the judge had problems understanding Tom Rider, and his lack of understanding eventually tipped over into barely concealed disdain.
Before calling a recess after the questioning about Tom’s use of “bitch”, Sullivan questioned Tom directly about the term (something permissible and even encouraged in a bench trial):
THE COURT: But in your words you called her a bitch affectionately, and then you said like you would call your daughters, right?
THE WITNESS: Yes.
THE COURT: Help me understand all of that.
THE WITNESS: Well, it’s — you know, it’s like somebody — if I would have used the F-word prior to that, to me that would be a nasty way of saying it. But to just say the word bitch is — I mean, I’ve called my daughter that, and it’s like if she does something, I go bitch. It’s kind of a — it’s not the same as if you’re putting a derogatory or a four-letter or six-letter, whatever word in front of it. I’m just saying the word bitch. In other words, when I said that by the train I was thinking of the incident where she blocked me in the toilet for 15 minutes and I couldn’t get her out. That’s what was in my mind, and I just calmly said bitch. It was not — I wasn’t mad at her or something like that where — that’s a difference in the terminology that I would use. But yeah, I’ve called all my daughters that. Just out of affection, it’s not a derogatory.
THE COURT: All right. On that note, we’ll take a 15-minute recess. We’ll start back at 2:45
Later, when Katherine Meyer, a lawyer for the animal welfare groups, was questioning Tom, the Judge again returned to Tom’s use of the word, “bitch”:
THE COURT: You were just teasing the elephant by calling her that name?
THE WITNESS: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Hardly a term of endearment, though, is it?
THE WITNESS: Not — I guess it’s not — I just — I do it to my daughters, you know, I do it to her. It’s like —
THE COURT: You call your daughters that?
THE WITNESS: I don’t do it as like — it’s just, you know, when you’re — you know, she’s — like my daughter does something that’s, you know, I don’t want to nag and yell and scream at her. It’s like, you know — especially if she starts nagging at me or something. It’s like a term of endearment to me. I don’t know how to other to put it.
THE COURT: I think you said it all.
THE WITNESS: Yeah. Yes.
Said it all, indeed. Tom Rider’s use of “bitch” would return again, and again, and again—in Feld’s lawyers’ documents, defended in the animal welfare group’s own documents, and in Judge Sullivan’s decisions. In essence, if anyone act lost the ESA case for the animal welfare groups, it was Tom’s use of the word “bitch”.
Yet, how wrong was his use of the world? Living in Missouri, as I do, not all that far from Tom’s hometown in Illinois, how he used the word “bitch” isn’t all that uncommon here, and the use of “bitch” as a joking reference to friends and family member is a frequent happening in modern parlance. There was far too much attention paid to Tom’s use of the word, “bitch”. Far too much.
Tom never had much of a chance in the DC courts. Toss an unsophisticated man who tends to be garrulous, into an intimidating courtroom environment filled with high-priced lawyers from prestigious law firms, in a city as far away in temperament and personality as rural Illinois is from DC, and you have an adversarial lawyer’s dream come true. The combination worked for Feld in the ESA case, and I imagine Feld’s attorneys expected the same success during the trial in the RICO case.
But then Tom died, and everything has changed.
It’s difficult to trip up a dead man in court, even more difficult to speak ill of a dead man no longer around to defend himself. The RICO case won’t be a bench trial, it will be in front of a jury, and we can expect that not all of jury members will have problems with the use of a word like “bitch”.
The last few months since Tom died we’ve seen a blizzard of courtroom filings, including a monstrously large motion for legal fees from Feld demanding 25 million dollars from the animal welfare groups (and their lawyers) for the ESA case. The amount is more than what all of the animal welfare groups—The Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, and Born Free USA—have in combined assets, so now Feld is attempting to bring the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) into the ESA case. This, after the case has already been decided, with the HSUS not participating in the case or the trial—participation that may, for all we know, have altered the outcome of the case. The reason Feld gives for pulling in the HSUS at this very late date is that the HSUS has formed a de facto merger because of a contractual relationship with one of the animal welfare groups in the ESA case, the Fund for Animals. However, the concept of a de factor merger is basically foreign to nonprofits, and the groups still exist as separate legal entities.
But let’s be upfront about the real reason for pulling in HSUS, shall we? The HSUS has economic reserves the Feld lawyers would just love to tap.
(Feld also included HSUS in the RICO lawsuit, which I’ll have more to talk about a little later.)
The attorney fee request is breathtaking, dragging in HSUS after all the decisions have been made seems blatantly unfair (and more than a little screwy), but the most recent, and alarming, motion happened in the RICO case. The animal welfare groups filed for a protective order because Feld’s lawyers are demanding lists of private donor names and contact information. Why the demand? Because Feld’s RICO case is fragile, at best, and the only way it can possibly proceed is if Feld Entertainment works to establish that it is not the only entity defrauded by the nefarious and dastardly animal welfare groups; that those who donated for the fight to free circus elephants are also victims.
(With an implication in earlier filings that if the donors weren’t victims, they must then be co-conspirators.)
The request is extraordinary and chilling, as reflected in the motion for the protective order:
Should FEI [Feld Entertainment Inc.] gain access to confidential donor information, both current and future donors would see their protected political conduct chilled by the fear of financial burden and reprisal. This fear would be particularly well founded in light of FEI’s history of harassment and retaliation against individuals and organizations that seek to remedy animal mistreatment. The chilling effect on the donors on whom the Nonprofit Organizations depend for their continued existence would also irreparably harm the Nonprofit Organizations, along with other animal welfare and animal rights organizations that depend on the same donors for support. FEI’s “donor fraud” argument is unprecedented: a Court ruling that an adversary of a nonprofit advocacy organization may obtain that organization’s donor information merely by alleging that the organization misled its donors would set a disastrous precedent that would alter the legal landscape for all nonprofit and advocacy organizations.
Feld’s lawyers are not stupid people. They know that they’ll have a fight on their hands by asking the courts to set aside the Constitution in allowing their request. They had implied in earlier hearings they would not do so, so what has changed to make them so desperate?
Tom Rider died. Their own warped version of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” they have become dependent on has ended before it began.
As it stands today, decisions I expected to be years in the future could be happening in the next few months, and both the ESA and the RICO cases might soon be over. My Ringling Brothers book is on hold as I wait for new developments. Unlike in the past, where I rarely talked about the case at my site, I’ll be providing frequent updates on what’s happening with court cases—the RICO case, in particular, since it can have such serious ramifications for animal welfare and environmental groups. The animal welfare groups can’t discuss the case because if they do, it ends up featured prominently in a Feld filing demanding yet more control over the release of information about the case.
The animal welfare groups and associated lawyers couldn’t even briefly issue a note about Tom’s death. I found out about it from a court filing that stated simply, “Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 25(a) notice is hereby served of the death of Defendant Tom Rider on October 1, 2013.”
A hell of a way to find out that one of the primary people in your story is dead. Rest in peace, Tom. Rest in peace, you goodhearted bastard, you.
* One major reason for Karen’s temperament could be chronic pain.