(CN) - A "paltry" donation to a dubious conservation group is all it took for a circus to bypass federal law on the import and export of endangered Asian elephants, an animal rights group claims in court.
In a complaint filed in the D.C. Federal Court, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department allowed the Tarzan Zerbini Circus to take advantage of an unlawful "pay to play" policy to export and re-import two Asian elephants for use in Canadian circus tours.
As alleged in the Nov. 24 complaint, the policy allows applicants to donate as little as $500 to a conservation organization in lieu of proving that otherwise illegal activities will benefit endangered animals.
PETA claims circus has been cited for numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act -- including "exposing elephants to the risk of electrocution and "failing to properly treat an elephant with tuberculosis" -- yet was not required by federal regulators "to demonstrate that trucking elephants across the border and then to tour stops from Medicine Hat to Ottawa enhances the endangered species' survival."
While the Endangered Species Act allows federal regulators to issue permits for import and export where "the propagation or survival of the affected species" is supported, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "did not require Zerbini to demonstrate that forcing elephants to spin on a small platform or balance on their hind legs enhances the endangered species' survival.
PETA claims Zerbini did not seek to make a donation to a conservation organization until it was advised to do so by regulators, and that when it did, it chose a group that allegedly has no employees.
The animal rights group seeks a declaration that the agencies issuance of permits to the circus violated the Endangered Species Act and other regulations, and an order setting aside those permits.
"At a time when audiences everywhere are turning away from circuses that force elephants to perform, PETA's lawsuit demands that authorities follow the law and their own regulations, which are designed to protect vulnerable animals," said PETA Foundation Counsel Rachel Matthews in a statement on behalf of the organization.
Matthew Strugar, of the PETA Foundation's Los Angeles office filed the lawsuit.
A representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined a request for an interview, citing a policy regarding pending litigation.
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