DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) - After a judge upheld regulatory loopholes blamed for a roadside zoo's mistreatment of tigers, animal-rights activists filed an appeal Thursday.
Iowa's strict laws to keep dangerous wild animals include an annual registration fee that can be as high as $500 per animal, plus obligations to microchip the animals and obtain liability insurance coverage.
If the owners' facilities are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, many of these registration requirements are held at bay, Born Free USA and the Animal Rescue League complain.
They say wild-animal owners licensed with the USDA have to pay the state a onetime, $175 flat fee, no matter how many wild animals they keep, and they do not have to comply with microchipping or insurance requirements.
Insisting the exemption misses the mark, Born Free counted 18 incidents involving dangerous animals between 1990 and 2014 where the entity possessed a federal license.
One of these incidents included the exposure of 400 people at a barn-warming party to rabies because an exotic petting zoo's bear kept nipping partygoers, according to a petition for rulemaking Born Free and the league filed with the state.
Federal regulators are aware of the problem, according to the petition, which cites a USDA report about individuals who obtain federal licenses "purely to circumvent state laws regarding the private ownership of animals."
"In Iowa, the incentive to circumvent the law is too great at present," the petition states.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship rejected Born Free and the coalition's rulemaking petition, however, and the Polk County District Court affirmed late last month.
Though Judge Jeanie Vaudt agreed with the agency that it lacks legislative authority to make the sought-after change, the groups took a different view.
"We disagree profoundly with her reasoning and are very concerned about the implications," Jessica Blome, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in an interview Thursday after announcing the groups' appeal.
"We're mainly concerned with her conclusion that IDALS doesn't have the authority to do rulemaking ... [and that] the legislature needed to give IDALS explicit instructions in order to make the regulation we were requesting," Blome added. "That's an overly strict interpretation of IDALS's authority."
Blome said her team came across the loophole in Iowa legislation while researching an unrelated lawsuit against Cricket Hollow Zoo. Earlier this month, a federal judge presiding over that case ordered the zoo to surrender tigers and lemurs it has been mistreating in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
If Iowa held Cricket Hollow to its full registration requirements, according to the petition, the roadside zoo would have had to pay the state $6,650 for possessing 33 dangerous wild animals, rather than the flat fee of $175 required under the exemption.
Blome says these fees would give IDALS the funding it needs to respond to wild-animal incidents, such as an alligator that escaped a Des Moines zoo in 2008 and ended up in a resident's backyard.
The attorney condemned Iowa's willingness to ignore the insurance requirement for USDA-licensed facilities as its "most breathtaking abdication of duty."
Stressing the importance of the insurance requirement, Blome noted that it requires owners of wild animals to prove that they can afford to keep them.
"You have to be solvent to take care of all those animals," Blome said.
Born Free adds that visitors to Iowa zoos "rely on Iowa's regulation to ensure their personal safety, as well as the safety and welfare of dangerous wild animals used for exhibition or entertainment purposes."
Yet "current regulations do not adequately address animal husbandry and public safety needs," the petition states
"All those USDA-licensed facilities have these dangerous wild animals on their property, are regularly inspected by USDA and then completely ignored [by the state] because of that," she said.
Iowa just "waits for a piece of paper to come in once a year and then they go about their merry way and they never check up on them," the attorney added.
"USDA at least has a mission to ensure animal welfare, but its mission is not to ensure public safety or make sure animals aren't escaping or make sure that these zoos are financially solvent," she continued. "The legislature attempted to fix these loopholes, and IDALS decided not to do it. The public is not protected from these zoos, and the USDA isn't equipped or charged to look over it. The state attempted to fix it and the state agency said no, which is not okay."
The Iowa Court of Appeals will rule on the case by the end of the year.
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