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California’s Exotic Cat Regulations Challenged

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - The government has a blanket policy of imposing strict regulations against zoos that are not accredited to its liking, a group that cares for exotic cats claims in court.

Exotic Feline Breeding Compound (EFBC) filed two separate lawsuits against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and its Director Charlton Bonham in Kern County Superior Court.

The suits concern EFBC's regulation under sections 2116 and 671 of California law, known as the restricted species laws. These regulations require government approval before private citizens and nonprofessional organizations can move or breed restricted animals; impose various fees; and require the microchipping or tattooing of all animals in custody. Organizations that violate these laws face "significant fines" and could even have their animals euthanized, according to the complaints.

In the first suit, the compound claims that the department wrongfully denied its request for a waiver from certain restricted species laws. Under California Fish and Game Code Section 2150(c), the department must fully consider an organization's case before issuing a decision on its request, the complaint states.

The compound claims the department "wrongfully and arbitrarily has refused to exercise its discretion by adopting a blanket policy of denying all waiver requests and applying that policy against EFBC to its detriment." (Emphasis in original.)

"Moreover, the department adopted this blanket policy without giving public notice or adhering to any of the other requirements for a duly enacted regulation, and thus has exceeded its authority by establishing an unlawful underground regulation in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act," as well as several California codes, the compound adds.

In a separate complaint, the compound also claims that the department had turned up its nose at the compound's accreditation by the Zoological Association of America.

Fish and Wildlife delegated restricted species laws enforcement power to a different accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, according to the complaint.

Founded in 1977 in Rosamond, Calif., the compound describes itself in its complaints as a "breeding zoo and research facility which houses exotic felines including some of the world's most endangered species of wild cats," including jaguars, several species of leopards and Malayan tigers.

The compound says it is a member of several cooperative breeding programs with other zoos around the world that assist in the population recovery and genetic diversity of endangered wildcats. The compound has also allegedly taken in sick animals and helped the agency develop wild cat caging requirements. Its facility is open to the public "and has the most comprehensive and diverse collection of wild felines" in the state, the complaint adds.

The nonprofit Zoological Association of America, which accredited the compound in 2005, maintains stringent standards in animal care, safety plans and record keeping, among other things, the complaint states.

"ZAA-accredited institutions are bona fide, professionally managed zoos that can be trusted to protect public safety and animal welfare," the complaint adds.

The compound says that California's laws were never meant to apply to accredited zoos unless they housed "detrimental" species. Since the compound is accredited and has no such species, it claims to be in the clear.

Before 1985, the department allegedly considered the compound a "bona fide zoo" and exempted it from permitting and microchipping requirements under the restricted species laws. After 1985, however, the department changed its codes so that only organizations accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums qualified as bona fide zoos, according to the complaint.

Groups like the compound that are accredited through other organization are thus forced to apply for a waiver, it says.

Though Section 2150(c) requires the department to justify its denial of waiver requests, the department last year rejected the compound's application because it claimed to lack guidance from the Legislature on how to determine what constituted "justifiable reasons" to grant a request, according to the suit. As such it allegedly rejected all waiver requests regardless of an organization's reasons for filing them.

The Fish and Game Commission later rejected an appeal in a similar case and then ordered the compound to comply with its requirements or face criminal prosecution, according to the complaint.

EFBC says it made a "compelling evidentiary showing" for a waiver, but that the department last month reaffirmed its policy of not granting any waivers.

As a private organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums should not have the power to decide exemption from the restricted species laws, according to the complaint.

EFBC says the association also reaps financial gains from its accrediting monopoly, and even encourages zoos to become accredited through it so they can avoid government red tape.

The case is urgent since "the department has threatened immediate criminal prosecution" for noncompliance, according to the complaint. EFBC says it microchips animals only after they have been anesthetized for medically necessary reasons to minimize any risk to its cats, some of which come from endangered or threatened species.

"The loss of even one such specimen from complications of anesthesia would have significant and irreparable environmental impact which far outweighs the extremely limited benefit of implanting a microchip in a securely caged animal," it claims.

In addition to an order declaring the department's accreditation requirement unconstitutional, the group also wants reconsideration of its bid for an exemption from the restricted species laws at issue.

It is represented by Scott Pearson with Seyfarth Shaw of Los Angeles.

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