USDA slow to certify its own reports; delay stalls lawsuit seeking closure of troubled eastern Iowa zoo

A lawsuit seeking closure of a troubled Manchester, Iowa zoo for Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations has been stalled by failure of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to certify its own inspection reports released last year through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa against Cricket Hollow Zoo is based on non-compliance citations "documented by USDA inspectors in inspection reports that are shared with defendants after each of USDA's site visits as well as letters from USDA officials to defendants."

But, according to a recent motion by lawyers for Tracey Kuehl, of Davenport, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the USDA has refused to "certify" the non-compliance inspection documents so they can be admitted for court use.

"On April 6, 2015, undersigned counsel formally requested certification of 'previously released records' . . . so that plaintiffs could use USDA's records in support of their motion for summary judgment," according to the motion filed Thursday (5/28). Attorneys have contacted the USDA's staff eight separate times since April 6 to try to meet the June 1 deadline for filing of motions in the case.

The attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund is seeking a 15 day extension of the motion deadline, or acceptance of the "non-certified" non-compliance documents until such time as USDA gets around to authenticating the records.

Cricket Hollow Zoo also is the subject of a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

In that lawsuit, the ALDF and Kuehl argue the USDA has a "pattern and practice of rubber-stamping the renewal of the zoo's AWA (Animal Welfare Act) license each year, despite the zoo's serious and flagrant violations of applicable AWA standards. . ."

A key legal hurdle is whether the USDA can grant renewal of Cricket Hollow's license without determining if, in fact, the facility is in compliance with USDA regulations.

USDA attorneys have sought to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the federal statute only requires compliance with the animal welfare act prior to issuing a license. Once the license has been issued – in 1999 in Cricket Hollow's case – "there is no statutory requirement that the Secretary (of USDA) require a demonstration of compliance with the AWA as a condition of license renewal."

The federal suit in Washington has run into somewhat similar delays with the USDA. In that case, the federal agency has opposed release of the USDA's "complete administrative record" concerning Cricket Hollow's federal license renewal, arguing the license renewal "is a purely administrative matter."

"Although plaintiffs contend that allegations have been made against Cricket Hollow concerning its alleged lack of compliance. . , such allegation are not a basis to deny renewal under the agency's regulations," according to USDA attorneys.

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