updated 3/15/2006 5:46:42 PM ET 2006-03-15T22:46:42

The president of the company that owns the Ringling Bros. circus was cleared Wednesday of accusations he ran a spy campaign against animal rights groups.

The decision by a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury is a blow to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which brought the civil suit against Kenneth Feld. Feld is the president of Vienna-based Feld Entertainment, which owns the legendary circus and numerous other high-profile entertainment acts, including Disney on Ice.

The verdict was reached after some nine hours of deliberations over two days. It concludes a more than two-week trial in which PETA claimed Feld and other company executives stole sensitive documents and wiretapped the activities of Norfolk-based PETA and other groups.

Feld showed little emotion as the verdict was announced, but later said he was grateful to jurors. He told reporters PETA’s accusation “flies in the face of logic.”

The two sides have been at odds for years. PETA filed the suit in 2001. In opening arguments last month, PETA’s lawyer claimed Feld was in charge of an espionage campaign and stole items including donor lists. Feld’s lawyer said nothing illegal was done, PETA was never harmed by any alleged actions, and that the group was hypocritical because it frequently uses undercover operatives to expose wrongdoing.

“We’re in the business to provide happiness to families. We’re not in the business of being in court,” Feld said Wednesday.

“I’m surprised. I really didn’t expect it to go like that,” said PETA lawyer Philip Hirschkop, who promised to take his case next to the Court of Appeals in Richmond.

“The PETA documents they had in their possession were highly confidential,” Hirschkop said, noting he presented jurors more than 1,400 documents and calling the verdict a “terrible injustice.”

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