Zoo Takes On PETA Over Chimpanzee Care

(CN) – A Michigan zoo claims in a federal lawsuit that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals harassed it, threatened litigation and made defamatory statements about the zoo’s chimpanzee exhibit.

DeYoung Family Zoo and the zoo’s owner and director, Harold DeYoung, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against PETA and Marti McDowell in Grand Rapids federal court, alleging the animal rights group has threatened to sue the zoo for its possession of two chimpanzees because they supposedly constitute a “taking” in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

DeYoung says PETA asserted in its notice to file a lawsuit that the zoo is violating the ESA through an ongoing “take” of Louie and another called Chimpanzee #2, accusing the zoo of isolating the chimpanzees from any other member of their species and denying them a safe, complex environment.

PETA also claims the Wallace, Mich., zoo exposes Louie to harassment by visitors, according to DeYoung’s complaint.

But DeYoung says PETA’s legal efforts are meant “to fund its litigation war chest in furtherance of two of its goals which are to end private ownership of animals and to have human or non-property rights bestowed upon non-wild, non-human primates, which under applicable law are considered to be private property.”

According to the complaint, McDowell, a resident of Iron Mountain, Mich., is a PETA representative who filed an unfounded complaint against the DeYoung Family Zoo with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service back in 2014.

On multiple occasions, both PETA and McDowell have posted and made false statements about DeYoung’s chimpanzee exhibit, according to the complaint. DeYoung says since those publications have been released by PETA and McDowell, the zoo has been subject to threats, ridicule and loss of income.

“One PETA press release has been picked up by the print and television media which have re-published said false and defamatory statements, thus multiplying the harm experienced by plaintiffs,” the complaint states. “Defendants PETA’s and McDowell’s false, misleading and defamatory statements were made maliciously and/or were so willful and wanton as to demonstrate a reckless disregard of the plaintiffs’ rights.”

The zoo says its housing and care of the two chimpanzees is in compliance with the ESA. It seeks an injunction to bar PETA and McDowell from filing their lawsuit.

Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement at PETA, said in a statement that the animal rights group’s case against the DeYoung Family Zoo “will show that the roadside facility’s treatment of chimpanzees Louie and Tommy violates the Endangered Species Act.”

“Believed to be confined to isolated cages, they’re apparently denied virtually everything that is natural and important to them, including living in large, family-oriented communities and engaging in normal kinds of behavior, such as roaming, climbing, swinging, and participating in affectionate social grooming,” Peet said.

She added, “PETA has offered to arrange the chimpanzees’ placement at and transport to an accredited sanctuary, where they would be able to enjoy the companionship of other members of their species and explore vast outdoor enclosures. Rather than seeking to prevent PETA from filing a lawsuit to help these animals, DeYoung should consider their best interests and immediately retire them to an accredited sanctuary that will allow them to live their own lives as individuals rather than as photo props for gawking tourists.”

Along with its injunction to stop PETA and McDowell from filing suit, DeYoung seeks compensatory and exemplary damages for the allegedly defamatory statements. The zoo is represented by Kurtis Reeg with Goldberg Segalla LLP in St. Louis, Mo.