Less than a month after two enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians threatened to sue the Cherokee Bear Zoo, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit against the USDA for failing to respond to a petition asking for additional protections for bears such as those kept at the zoo.
“Not only has the USDA ignored the egregious neglect of and cruelty to bears, it has also ignored its duty to respond to formal petitions that request action for animals who are in trouble and dependent on agency action,” said PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Delcianna Winders.
According to PETA representatives, the USDA must respond in a reasonable amount of time when a petition is received.
“They have to respond that they are declining to consider it or open the public comment period,” said Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney for PETA.
A public affairs specialist for the USDA, however, said the department is not required to take action on petitions.
“When USDA receives a petition, we carefully look at it and consider it to determine whether changes to the Animal Welfare Act are warranted,” said Tanya Espinosa in an email.
But it must say whether it has received a petition, according to PETA. When asked if the USDA had told PETA that its petition was received, Espinosa declined to answer.
“Because we understand that PETA has filed a lawsuit regarding this issue, we are unable to comment further,” Espinosa said in an email.
PETA sent a 65-page petition to the USDA in fall 2012 asking that it initiate procedures to change the Animal Welfare Act to include a bear-specific section.
“It is high time that they instituted specific rules,” said Nasser.
Currently, bears fall under the Animal Welfare Act’s generic standards, “which is a catch-all for any animals not specifically addressed,” Nasser added.
The petition also has specific recommendations for the new section: prohibit people from housing bears in pits or other sensory-depriving conditions; compel bear zoos to follow acceptable den and pool requirements; and require environments that allow for hibernation, foraging, running, climbing, digging and other normal bear behaviors.
“Bears have proven to be some of the hardest animals to keep healthy in captivity,” Nasser said. “None of these natural behaviors are being allowed for.”
The petition also asked that the USDA hire a full-time bear specialist, similar to the ones it has for elephants, marine mammals, primates, birds, exotic cats and animals in traveling exhibits.
The USDA does employ a veterinarian who expertise includes bears, Espinosa said in the email.
To modify the Animal Welfare Act, the USDA must post proposed changes to the Federal Register for public comment. It then takes the received comments into consideration before posting a final draft of the new regulations to the Federal Register.
This is the second lawsuit PETA has filed against the USDA regarding facilities that house bears. The other focuses specifically on the USDA’s decision to continually renew a Fayetteville business’ Animal Welfare Act license. PETA has alleged that Jambbas Ranch Tours has neglected and abused the animals in its care, including bears, foxes and potbellied pigs.