A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performer during a visit to Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Nobody likes it when Dumbo has a black eye.

But according to a lawsuit filed by a former trainer in 2000, elephants that appear in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses get something like that routinely. They’re prodded with bullhooks and chained for long periods, the suit alleged.

But the plaintiff had a problem: He had received almost $200,000 from animal rights activists. So a judge ruled he was a “paid plaintiff” and dismissed the lawsuit in 2009.

The saga didn’t end there. Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.’s parent company that uncovered the payments to the trainer, countersued.

And Thursday, 14 years after the original suit was filed, the circus settled for $16 million to be paid by the Humane Society and other animal rights groups.

The Associated Press:

Florida-based Feld Entertainment said Thursday’s settlement of the long-running case in the U.S. District Court in Washington is a vindication of its animal care, while the animal-rights groups said the settlement ends a legal quagmire that had spiraled well beyond the core question of how the circus treats its elephants.

Kenneth Feld, CEO of the privately held company that also produces Disney on Ice and other shows, said in an interview that the animal-rights groups abused the legal system, and the settlement allows the company to focus on producing family entertainment.

“The fact that we could get dragged through this for 14 years … I think it is very clearly a public vindication for our company that these people really misused the judicial system,” Feld said.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) paid Ringling Bros. $9.3 million in a settlement related to the same lawsuit in 2012.

Ringling Bros.’s treatment of elephants was criticized by Mother Jones in 2011. Headline: “The Cruelest Show on Earth.”

The circus returns to Washington in 2015. Answers to frequently asked questions about Ringling Bros.’s animal care appear here.

Related: Earlier this month in Providence, R.I., nine Ringling Bros. performers, including acrobats, were injured when equipment collapsed.