(CN) – An animal rights group should be allowed to intervene in Animal Welfare Act proceedings between the United States Department of Agriculture and an Iowa roadside zoo, a federal judge ruled.
“The Court finds that [the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s] demonstrated interest in the welfare of the zoo’s animals falls squarely within the scope of the USDA enforcement proceeding,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper wrote in his 14-page ruling out of the District of Columbia, which overturned an administrative law judge’s earlier decision. “The Judicial Officer’s finding to the contrary was therefore arbitrary and capricious under the [Administrative Procedure Act].”
“We’re pleased that this federal judge agreed with us that in fact the AWA does contemplate the possibility that private parties can participate alongside the USDA in agency actions against animal abusers,” Jeff Pierce, legal counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in an interview.
Pierce added that the ruling is especially important in light of the USDA’s recent decision to take previously public inspection records off its website, potentially shutting down activism from those concerned with animal well-being.
The conditions at the Cricket Hollow Animal Park, formerly known as the Cricket Hollow Zoo, in Manchester, Iowa, have been of concern to the Animal Legal Defense Fund since 2014. It has successfully sued the zoo twice for violations of the Endangered Species Act over its mistreatment of endangered animals in captivity. Those lawsuits resulted in the zoo first surrendering its tigers and lemurs, and then its lions.
The animal rights group also sued the USDA in 2014 for continuing to renew the zoo’s license to exhibit despite its history of non-compliance with Animal Welfare Act standards. In March 2016, a federal judge ruled in the USDA’s favor because the USDA employed a licensing scheme that did not make compliance with the AWA a prerequisite.
While the ALDF’s lawsuit against the USDA was pending, the USDA began enforcement proceedings against the zoo for Animal Welfare Act violations that included inadequate veterinary care for the animals and a lack of wholesome food. The ALDF moved to intervene, offering to share evidence of negligent treatment of the animals that it had gathered in its own lawsuits.
According to Judge Cooper’s summary of the case on Wednesday, an administrative law judge denied the request on the basis that it would disrupt “the orderly conduct of business” and that the ALDF’s interests were “beyond the scope” of the current enforcement proceedings.
But Cooper disagreed, finding that the ALDF’s general interest in animal welfare and its particular interest in the animals at the Cricket Hollow Zoo gave it standing to intervene.
The ALDF’s interests would be impaired, Cooper continued, if the USDA “failed to prove the alleged violations or negotiated a settlement that did not provide for the adequate care of the zoo’s animals, or if the [administrative law judge] imposed a penalty that did not sufficiently sanction the zoo’s conduct. The Judicial Officer’s failure to identify, let alone consider, this rather obvious alignment of interests was arbitrary and capricious.”
Cooper added that, because of its previous dealings with the zoo, the ALDF’s input on an appropriate remedy “might well be original and beneficial.”
Although Cooper remanded the case back to the administrative law judge, Pierce said the ALDF’s next steps remain uncertain. The USDA has already pursued its enforcement action, with a hearing before a judge at the end of January.
“We don’t know whether they had enough evidence or whether they were savvy enough to get the relief they requested,” Pierce said. “If Cricket Hollow loses its license, they’ll have to relinquish all the animals that qualify as dangerous, and most of them would have the opportunity to go someplace where they would receive better care.”
Still, he says Cricket Hollow is just the “tip of the iceberg” and that roadside menageries that keep wild animals in deplorable conditions abound throughout the country.
“In future instances, we can bring this federal court opinion before the USDA and say, ‘Look, at least one federal judge has already declared that our interest in protecting specific animals may grant us a right to participate in these proceedings,” he said.