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Closing Arguments Heard in PETA v. Circus Lawsuit


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. A case that involves allegations of spying and illegal wiretaps, a former Deputy Director of the CIA, and circus elephants is now in the hands of a Virginia jury. Closing arguments took place today in the civil case filed by PETA, the animal rights group, against Kenneth Feld, CEO of the Ringling Brothers Circus. PETA is seeking 1.8 million dollars in damages. The case has been winding through the courts for five years and NPR's Jack Speer's been following it, and joins us now in the studio. Jack, what is PETA alleging here, and what did the jurors hear today.

JACK SPEER, reporting:

Well, what PETA is alleging here, Robert, is that Ken Feld, he is the head of Ringling Brothers Circus, ran an elaborate campaign against these groups for more than a decade. PETA's lawyer, Phillip Hirschkop, used the documents in this case and there are about 16 hundred of them all toldm to show that Feld and his employees placed undercover operatives inside of PETA, and these other animal rights groups, to find out what the groups were planning. And there were also claims that these operatives stole documents from the groups. PETA says that Feld spent millions of dollars over the years on this kind of surveillance of the animal rights groups, and it was all part of an illegal conspiracy. Feld's lawyer, Thomas Cawley, however, in his closing argument reminded jurors this is a civil suit and it needs to show damages. And he says that PETA continued to grow during the entire period this supposedly took place, so his question to the jury was essentially where's the foul here? And Cawley also alleges PETA filed this suit solely for the publicity.

SIEGEL: How did this case come about?

SPEER: Well, what happened here was that one of Feld's employees, an individual named Charles Smith, had a major falling out with Feld. And this happened back in the '90s. Smith testified in this trial, as a matter of fact. He was the one who was responsible for, you know, as we say, overseeing some of these groups' activities. He was apparently somewhat overzealous. In 1987 he was arrested for spying on his own girlfriend and Feld fired him. And in retaliation for being fired, he went to these animal rights groups and basically spilled the beans here and told them all about this campaign against them.

SIEGEL: And he is just one of a number of colorful figures in this case, including a former CIA official. Explain that one.

SPEER: Yeah, we've got quite a cast of characters here. That CIA official would be Clair George. He is a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And it has come out in a number of documents he was hired by Feld to act as a consultant to provide security services to the circus. It's PETA's contention, however, that George was hired to oversee this spy network. Feld's lawyer argued today that the vast majority of the work George did for Feld, however, had nothing to do with spying.

SIEGEL: Well for all the spying that was conducted, what did Feld and the circus actually gain?

SPEER: Well, that's a very good question, Robert, because, you know, it's not clear how much they really got. They got a window into what these animal rights groups and some of the heads of these organizations were thinking, and they got a bit of an early warning when the groups were planning protests against the circus. This apparently allowed Ringling to organize counter demonstrations. But that's really about it. Millions of dollars spent on surveillance and some offsetting demonstrations, as I mentioned earlier, PETA needs to prove not only there was an act of conspiracy, but that the group was harmed. It's going to be up now to this jury to decide that. No matter what the jury decides here, though, you can bet they'll be some further appeals in this case. These two groups really dislike one another.

SIEGEL: Thank you Jack.

SPEER: Your welcome.

SIEGEL: NPR's Jack Speer who is covering PETA's lawsuit against the Ringling Brothers Circus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jack Speer
Jack Speer is a newscaster at NPR in Washington, DC. In this role he reports, writes, edits, and produces live hourly updates which air during NPR programming.