WASHINGTON (CN) - Noting that elephants and humans can communicate deadly tuberculosis, an animal-welfare group has filed a federal complaint to learn how U.S. authorities would handle an outbreak.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed the complaint on Nov. 5 under the Freedom of Information Act, more than 17 months after the Norfolk, Va.-based group filed its request with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, seeking all records up to the date of its filing "related to elephants and tuberculosis from January 1, 2011."
The 2011 start date marks the year that the CDC released a report on the elephant-to-human transmission of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.
That report warned, according to PETA's complaint, "that there is a 'high prevalence of M. tuberculosis infection among elephants living in North America,' and further warned that because of 'gaps in scientific knowledge' 'and the insensitivity of diagnostic tests, a substantial need exists for focusing attention on infection control practices and occupational health programs specifically designed to reduce zoonotic M. tuberculosis transmission in the captive elephant industry.'"
PETA says the agency replied to its request in December, but ignored its request for a fee waiver, saying fulfillment of the records request would cost $1,600.
The CDC that called an attorney for the animal-rights group a day later, and it had sent the earlier message in error, according to the complaint.
PETA says it is still waiting for a final determination and responsive documents.
In March, the group released its own report, relying on released CDC emails, that says Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, the largest travel exhibitor of elephants in the country, has been using elephants in its shows that tested positive TB.
Details about these TB-positive elephants, Banko and Asia, also appear in the complaint.
PETA says a Ringling's "so-called Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Fla.," has been under quarantine for years in Florida because of TB.
"As of June 2014, at least nine elephants at the CEC were under quarantine orders," the complaint states. "Documents that PETA obtained in March 2015 reveal that in 2010, at least sixteen elephants with Ringling tested positive for tuberculosis. Since then, over a third of those elephants have died, including Jewell, who was transferred to the Little Rock Zoo in violation of Florida's animal quarantine laws."
PETA says an elephant with TB has also been "recently" linked to an outbreak in Tennessee among nine humans, some of whom had had no direct contact with the elephant.
Ringling Bros. and other circuses that use animal performers have been a longtime target of PETA.
The complaint against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says its records are necessary to "illuminate the public's understanding of the CDC's awareness and actions pertaining to this nationwide issue that could reach epidemic proportions unless it is adequately addressed."
In its 2011 report, the CDC described a lack of clear understanding as to how the elephant-to-human transmission of Mycobacterium tuberculosis occurs.
Although many of the people who contracted the M. Tuberculosis at the sanctuary worked in close proximity of the elephants in their barn, there were also exposed people who primarily worked in an adjacent administrative building, a factor that investigators attributed to barn-cleaning methods that aerosolized the bacteria.
In short, the CDC report highlighted the need for research and safety precautions because M. tuberculosis is more prevalent among elephants and more easily transmitted to humans than previously thought.
"First, in this outbreak the inability to accurately and expeditiously detect M. tuberculosis infection and disease in elephants contributed to unrecognized, and therefore uncontrolled, risk," the report says. "Improved methods for diagnosis of M. tuberculosis infection in elephants are needed. Second, infection control practices were insufficient to protect employees."
PETA is represented in its lawsuit by Matthew Strugar of Los Angeles.