U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Endangered Species Act Protects Zoo Animals From Disruptive Treatment

Pacing around concrete pits at the Cherokee Bear Zoo, four bears begged for food from visitors.

Patrons obliged, throwing apples and dry bread supplied by the zoo. Two visitors, however, walked away disgusted.

Peggy Hill and Amy Walker, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, sued for inhumane treatment of the endangered animals. A court decision in the case should cause zoo keepers to re-evaluate their practices.

"Behavioral Patterns"

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said the zoo must comply with the Endangered Species Act and other regulations, which prohibit practices that "significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering" of endangered species in captivity.

In Hill v. Coggins, the appeals court said animal husbandry practices must comply with ESA regulations and be "generally accepted" in the industry. Judge John Preston Bailey dissented, however, and said the majority overlooked the potential criminal consequences to zoo keepers.

"In analyzing the regulation, it is important to recall that the statute provides criminal sanctions for violations of its terms or of the regulations adopted pursuant thereto -- a fact the majority ignores," he wrote.

In any case, the appeals court reversed a trial court decision in the case and remanded it for further consideration. The appellate judges want the trial judge to decide whether the zoo unlawfully "took" the grizzlies under the ESA.

Unlawful Taking

The statute defines "take" as "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct." The plaintiffs alleged the zoo's treatment constitutes harassment and harm under the Act.

The trial judge dismissed their complaint, concluding that standard animal husbandry practices were excluded from the ESA. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit disagreed and also considered whether the plaintiffs' had standing.

Citing cases against Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus and others, the judges said the plaintiffs had standing because courts often treat an aesthetic interest in the observation of animals as a legally protected interest.

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