Durban - A Durban animal rights activist has vowed to defend a R1 million defamation suit brought against him by Brian Boswell’s Circus over an 11-minute video feature - posted on YouTube - that alleges animal abuse at the circus.
Michael Almendro of Glenwood, an amateur documentary maker whose video clip also advocates for animals to roam the wild, said he was flabbergasted by the Boswell suit. He described it as a bullying tactic by the entertainment company aimed at silencing its critics.
“They initially sent me a letter asking me to take the documentary down but we felt that there was nothing offensive in the documentary,” he said. “A while later a lawyer sent me a summons. I was shocked to see it was for R1 million. My lawyers think it’s laughable that they are suing me for that amount of money.”
The suit, which is two years from going to court, was lodged in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in December and is a result of the 11-minute documentary titled, Tigers in Tutus.
The documentary airs the views of several people who protested against the circus when it was in Durban last year. Some of them had claimed that the animals were being ill-treated.
Warren Smith, a partner at J Leslie Smith & Company, the law firm representing Brian Boswell’s Circus, said the circus had taken exception to the documentary’s assertion that they were cruel to their animals.
“Cruelty to animals is illegal. You cannot just go around accusing people of being cruel to animals. What was said was highly defamatory,” Smith said.
Almendro responded to the suit last week, denying that the documentary was defamatory and said comments made in it were fair.
According to court papers filed in Almendro’s defence of the suit, the documentary constituted commentary and opinion in relation to the inherently cruel conduct of keeping wild animals in captivity for circus performances. He argued that the documentary was published in the public interest.
Brian Boswell’s Circus has come under public scrutiny in recent weeks after a Carte Blanche exposé showed elephants at the circus being beaten by employees.
The company has confirmed that it had fired two of its animal handlers since an amateur cellphone video showing the beatings first surfaced in December.
Asked if Brian Boswell’s Circus will be launching a suit against Carte Blanche as the current affairs programme made similar abuse claims against the circus, Smith said: “I have not been given instructions to that effect.”
Almendro said that before putting the documentary on YouTube, Boswell was invited to comment on the issue, but the company did not respond to his request.
He said the documentary, which has been viewed more than 5 000 times online, discussed the morality of using wild animals in circuses and made reference to Brian Boswell’s Circus.
Almendro’s attorney, Diaan Ellis, said the claim for R1m was out of keeping with any reasonable claims for compensation.
“Brian Boswell and Brian Boswell’s Circus are clearly not seeking reasonable redress from any wrong done to them, but have artificially inflated the claim in an attempt to silence my client and to stifle public debate by attempting to destroy my client financially in public, Ellis said. “Boswell’s actions consequently constitute an abuse of the process of the court.”
Circus manager, Georgina Boswell, said they had no plans to abandon the lawsuit, but did not want to discuss the merits of the claim, explaining that the matter was sub judice.
“It is like the whole thing with the elephant footage on Carte Blanche that should have never been shown because there are charges pending,” she said. “How would we get a fair judgment if everyone is discussing it?”
The Daily News reported earlier this month that the national council of the SPCA had laid criminal charges against the circus after seeing the amateur footage of elephants being hit by handlers.
The circus has faced several protests in Gauteng where it is touring in the wake of the Carte Blanche programme as public anger continues to swell.
The Walmer West Primary School in Port Elizabeth that usually hosted Brian Boswell’s Circus when it toured the Eastern Cape has cancelled the contract.
Furthermore, protesters have vowed to turn up the heat on the circus and are planning to approach Parliament and the courts to force an outright ban on the use of animals by circuses.
Boswell said that in spite of increased protests many people were still going to the circus.
“On Sunday there was a protest outside but the circus was full,” she said.
“This is a minority group of people who are forcing their opinion on everybody. They are bombarding people to stop them from allowing us to use certain sites,” Boswell said. “Where we are in Kempton Park at the shopping centre they have bombarded the management of the centre and are threatening to protest and they are forcing their hand and damaging our legal business.”
Responding to the PE school cancelling its contract with them, Boswell said she understood the school’s position.
“I understand the school’s concerns because they don’t want violent protesters on their premises,” she said.
Boswell said the campaign against them was being led by a small but vociferous group of people.
“It is a definite demographic group against us. I don’t want to sound racist but it is purely white people against (us),” she said. “It is middle to upper class white people who want to shut us down.”