(CN) - The government need not defend its relicensing of a roadside zoo in Iowa where tigers died under squalid conditions, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Tom and Pamela Sellner first obtained a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their Cricket Hollow Zoo in 1994. Despite an uptick in violations since 2004 - culminating last month with an order for the zoo to surrender all of its lemurs and tigers - the USDA has renewed the zoo's license every year.
The license renewals in the face USDA violations prompted a 2014 federal complaint by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly tossed the case in Washington Monday.
ALDF attorney Jessica Blome criticized the outcome in an interview, bashing the "USDA's policy of rubber-stamping license renewal applications without evaluating - in any way - a licensee's compliance status under the Animal Welfare Act."
"This ridiculous policy gave the Cricket Hollow Zoo the opportunity to obtain a USDA license to operate a roadside zoo ... back when they owned a handful of animals," Blome added. "Now, the Cricket Hollow Zoo has amassed a collection of more than 300 animals with no corresponding increase in funding or employees."
Focusing solely on administrative issues, Kollar-Kotelly's ruling Monday offers little insight as to Cricket Hollow's deficiencies. A federal judge in Iowa laid them out in detail, however, last month while hammering the zoo for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The ALDF had participated in the Iowa challenge as well, complaining that the Sellners made their animals "suffer in barren, cramped, dimly lit, poorly maintained and feces-laden enclosures."
Scolding the zoo for "pervasive, long-standing and ongoing" violations, U.S. District Judge Jon Scoles found that Cricket Hollow boasted dirty cages; rotting food; stagnant, dirty water; and animals that appeared sick, including one vomiting lion. Five tigers died at the zoo between June 2013 and July 2015, and Cricket Hollow also subjected its lemurs to social isolation.
In the Washington, D.C., case, Kollar-Kotelly noted that the USDA requires proof of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act only when issuing a license, not when the license comes up for renewal.
The statute itself "never discusses renewals," according the 21-page ruling, which adds that license renewals merely involve compliance with various administrative requirements, such as paying an annual fee and submitting an annual report.
This is adequate because "in addition to the renewal process itself, licensees are subject to random inspections," and failed inspections subject zoos to the suspension or revocation of their licenses, as well as civil penalties, Kollar-Kotelly said.
While protection of animals is one goal of the Animal Welfare Act, an additional goal is to "afford due process to licensees," the ruling continues.
Deferring to the agency's policymaking discretion, Kollar-Kotelly found that the current procedure "accommodate[s] the multiple goals of the statute, including the promotion of animal welfare and the protection of procedural rights afforded to applicants and licensees."
ALDF attorney Blome noted that Cricket Hollow received multiple citations for lack of sanitation during random USDA inspections. "With a history of 'chronic noncompliance,' the zoo owners demonstrate willful indifference to animal welfare, and they don't need to worry that they will lose their license; the USDA will renew it again next year, either way," Blome said.
The ALDF has not yet decided whether it will appeal the decision.
Jeremy Simon and Robin Meriweather with the U.S. Attorney General's Office represented the USDA in the dispute. That office declined to comment on Kollar-Kotelly's decision.
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