The legal wrangling over four white tigers at Houston's Downtown Aquarium heated up Monday, when the Animal League Defense Fund filed a motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by restaurant giant Landry's, which owns the Aquarium.
The animal welfare group threatened to sue Landry's late last year, claiming that the tigers are largely confined to concrete rooms and barely see sunlight. Landry's responded by filing a defamation suit in November, accusing the California-based animal welfare group of "essentially extort[ing]" Landry's "into giving up the tigers, taking them from the only home and caregivers they have ever known and sending them to a 'sanctuary.'"
The battle began after animal welfare advocate Cheryl Conley toured the tigers' behind-the-scenes holding area in late 2015 and released photographs that show tigers in less crowd-pleasing circumstances.
But Landry's has long maintained that the tigers are well cared for, pointing to the fact that the facility is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The Animal League's Monday filing, known as an anti-SLAPP suit, accuses Landry's of trying to bully the group into silence. In a press release, the group's executive director, Stephen Wells, called the defamation suit "a blatant attempt to silence free speech."
The group's Houston attorney, Adam Milasincic, said in the same press release that Landry's, and its owner, billionaire Tilman Fertitta — who stars in a reality TV show called Billion Dollar Buyer — are public figures, and are therefore fair game for public discussion.
“This suit’s intention is to dissuade animal advocates from starting a public dialogue about the care and environment these tigers are entitled to under federal law — including the protected right to thrive," Milasincic said.
Landry's attorney, Steven Scheinthal, said in a press release Monday, "We have filed a defamation lawsuit against the ALDF, among others because they made false statements against us. Unlike the Defendants, we do not see or feel the need to litigate this matter in the press and are very comfortable presenting our arguments to the court."
Landry's defamation suit is being handled by attorney John Simpson, known for securing a $16 million settlement for circus owners Feld Entertainment, over animal welfare groups' allegations of mistreatment of circus elephants.