<bt>After about five years in Fairfax County Circuit Court, a lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against Kenneth Feld, owner of the Vienna-based Feld Entertainment, which is the parent company to Ringling Brothers and other companies, was brought to a close last week on Wednesday when a jury found for Feld.
The case originated from a 2001 lawsuit, in which PETA, which has actively campaigned against Feld's and other companies for their use and alleged abuse of exotic animals, sued for the return of their own internal documents which were in the possession of Feld employees. What they got were 25 documents, including internal memos, budget charts, phone records and financial statements, and a suspicion that many more had been stolen.
PETA filed conspiracy charges against Feld and demanded $600,000 in compensatory and punitive damages but had little in the way of hard evidence regarding specific dates, perpetrators and items stolen.
A countersuit was brought by Feld, accusing PETA of abuse of process. Feld maintained that the charges were a publicity stunt, as PETA's motion for judgment included little in the way of specifics regarding offenses against PETA and more about other cases brought against Feld and his companies. Among the cases mentioned were a case of Animal Welfare Act violation filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the mistreatment of a young elephant, which was settled out of court, and a case in which a freelance writer who had written an article about Feld accused him and his companies in court of hiring private investigators to investigate her and her family, keep photos and records of her activities, befriend her to discover personal details, tap her phone, break into her house, sabotage her publishing opportunities and support phoney publishing opportunities. That case is still pending.
PETA, who said they were only establishing a pattern of behavior, won the countersuit.
PETA attorney Philip Hirschkop did acknowledge that drawing attention to the circus's treatment of animals and the behavior of Feld's companies was one goal of the suit. "Now that we have the documents, you're going to see them everywhere," he said.
During the course of the litigation, said Hirschkop, the judge, David Stitt, dismissed one defense attorney from the case, held another in contempt and issued sanctions against six. Feld attorney Thomas Cawley confirmed that the sanctions are still on appeal in the Virginia Supreme Court.
PETA, too, has been known to engage in espionage, one recent instance being the placement of an undercover agent in Covance Laboratories Inc. in Vienna. However, said Hirschkop, the difference is that PETA was looking for and allegedly documented illegal behaviors and then filed full reports with the Department of Agriculture, the commonwealth's attorney for Fairfax County and the Department of the Interior. Also, he said, PETA is not acting to destroy the organizations it places under surveillance, but to modify their behavior.
<1b>— Mike DiCicco