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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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PETA Demands Records on Circus Elephants

WASHINGTON (CN) - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims the U.S. Department of Agriculture used bogus reasoning to blow off its request for information about Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' alleged mistreatment of two elephants and a lion. The Agriculture Department is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.

In its federal FOIA complaint, PETA claims: "On a scorching hot day in July 2004, Clyde, a 2-year-old lion baked to death in a boxcar as the Ringling circus traveled through the Mojave Desert (en route from Phoenix to Fresno) while temperatures climbed above 100°F.

"In August 2004, an eight-month old infant elephant named Riccardo was killed by Ringling after he slipped from a pedestal during a training exercise, breaking both hind legs.

"Also in August 2004, a Ringling handler violently beat a young elephant named Angelica while she was chained by two legs." (Parentheses in complaint.)

PETA claims the USDA "investigated these incidents and wrongfully withheld responsive information concerning its investigations after a FOIA request and subsequent administrative appeals from plaintiff."

PETA says the USDA invoked statutory exemptions: to prevent invasion of privacy.

It says the USDA's claimed exemptions lacked specificity and that it also withheld materials without invoking any exemptions.

In the material it did get, PETA says, the UDSA included some records about Clyde the lion, but no records about the alleged abuse of the elephants.

When PETA appealed, it says, the USDA admitted some records about Clyde's death were withheld without justification, and promised to produce them promptly. Five months later, the USDA "provided twenty pages of photographs that had been omitted from the earlier production without claiming an exemption. However, defendant still did not produce any of the other materials that the USDA had previously agreed should have been, and would be, produced," according to the complaint.

PETA says it received another partial response and a "final response" which contained some records about the elephants, but the USDA redacted several records and withheld others, invoking FOIA exemptions.

PETA says the USDA has no lawful basis for withholding the requested records.

"An agency responding to a FOIA request cannot justify withholding the content of entire documents simply by claiming that it contains exempt materials, such as defendant has done here. To properly withhold information, an agency must provide an adequate justification and specifically identify the reason for concluding that a particular exemption applies to the withheld information. Defendant has failed to comply with this requirement," PETA says.

PETA wants to see the records.

It is represented by Jeffrey Kerr.

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