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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 16, 2018




         The Court has before it Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) [ECF No. 15] and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court has conferred with counsel and finds that a motions hearing is not necessary.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Parties and the Claims

         Plaintiff People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (“PETA” or “Plaintiff”), a 501(c)(3) organization specializing in animal protection, brings a citizen lawsuit alleging violations of Section 11(g)(1)(A) of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). Defendants are Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland, Inc. (“Tri-State Zoo” or “Zoo”), Animal Park, Care & Rescue, Inc. (“Animal Park”), and Robert L. Candy (together, “Defendants”).[1] The animals on whose behalf the action is brought are two ring-tailed lemurs, five tigers, and one lion.

         Counts I and II of the Complaint assert the unlawful “take” and “possession” of protected species, respectively. Among other requests, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief (1) enjoining Defendants from owning or possessing endangered or threatened species in the future and (2) transferring Defendants' ownership of the animals at issue to reputable wildlife sanctuaries for appropriate placement. By the instant motion, Defendants seek dismissal of the Complaint for failure to state a claim.

         B. Statement of Facts[2]

         Tri-State Zoo is a zoological park in Cumberland, Maryland that exhibits many species of animals. Compl. ¶ 23, ECF No. 1. At issue in this case is the Zoo's treatment of two ring-tailed lemurs, five tigers, and one African lion. Id. ¶¶ 3, 24. According to the Plaintiff, the Zoo has previously been subject to some administrative actions for failing to meet the requirements of care of animals under the Animal Welfare Act. Id. ¶ 26. Plaintiff alleges that the Zoo lacks the resources and ability to adequately accommodate its animals and must rely on inadequately trained volunteers to care for these animals. Id. ¶ 27, 28.

         Ring-tailed lemurs[3] are highly social animals that require the opportunity to socialize with other lemurs to maintain their physical and psychological health. Id. ¶ 30-31. Plaintiff alleges that although the two ring-tailed lemurs are housed in the same enclosure, "a single companion is not an adequate social group for these highly social animals." Id. ¶ 35. Additionally, ring-tailed lemurs require "extensive, varied, and well-planned environmental enrichment, " which Defendants allegedly do not provide. Id. ¶ 37, 40. Moreover, these lemurs must be housed in sanitary spaces with temperatures between 64.4 and 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and Defendants allegedly do not provide them with adequate heating in winter or sanitary spaces in which to live. Id. ¶¶ 43, 46, 47.

         Tigers "require large, environmentally rich, natural spaces that allow them to express a wide range of behaviors." Id. ¶ 51. Defendants allegedly deny these tigers appropriate housing and adequate enrichment by “confining them to a pit . . . with adjacent dens, ” providing them only “a small tub of water and bowling balls” or a “tire” for enrichment, failing to clean and evaluate the enclosures, failing to provide access to clean pools, and failing to provide them appropriate shelter from the elements. Id. ¶¶ 53-58. Additionally, tigers require specific social conditions that Defendants have failed to provide (i.e., by inappropriately housing sibling female tigers in the same enclosure as a related sexually mature male tiger), which may lead to physical or psychological injury. Id. ¶¶ 62, 64. Moreover, tigers require adequate nutrition and water, and Defendants have allegedly failed to provide “adequately implemented nutrition protocols.” Id. ¶ 72. Defendants also allegedly fail to keep the enclosures clean from animal and food waste. Id. ¶ 72. Finally, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants harm and harass the tigers by granting members of the public “access to the ‘off-exhibit' areas of the enclosures and facilitating direct contact with adult tigers, ” resulting in increased psychological stress for the animals. Id. ¶ 75, 77.

         Lions are highly social, live in prides, and require enriching environments that “provide sufficient cover to facilitate hunting and denning.” Id. ¶ 83. The lion at the Tri-State Zoo is confined to a barren enclosure in social isolation with no visual privacy from the public. Id. ¶ 88. She is allegedly denied a veterinary-approved diet and fresh water. Id. ¶ 93. Her enclosure does not have adequate shade, which “exposes her to many associated ailments, including overheating, serious eye problems, and blindness.” Id. ¶ 96. Moreover, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants fail to timely remove animal and food waste from her enclosure. Id. ¶ 98. Finally, members of the public are granted access to her primary enclosure, “allowing members of the public to make physical contact with her, ” which is allegedly harmful to her physical and psychological health. Id. ¶ 105. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants failed to provide adequate veterinary care for their exotic cats, which led to the death of another lion in Tri-State Zoo in 2016. Id. ¶ 106-08.

         PETA brings this suit “on its own behalf to protect its programs.” Id. ¶ 111. Plaintiff states that Defendants “directly frustrate PETA's mission to eliminate the abuse and neglect of animals for entertainment” and “falsely present[] themselves as a refuge for abandoned and unwanted endangered and threatened animals.” Id. ¶¶ 112-13. PETA allegedly has been “forced to divert resources in order to counteract the public impression that Tri-State Zoo's practices are consistent with the ESA and animal welfare.” Id. ¶ 115. This has “impaired PETA's ability to advance its mission.” Id. ¶ 118.


         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. A complaint need only contain “‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original) (citations omitted). When evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are accepted as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. However, conclusory statements or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not [suffice].” Id. A complaint must allege sufficient facts “to cross ‘the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Inquiry into whether a complaint states a plausible claim is “‘a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Thus, if “the well-pleaded facts [contained within a complaint] do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (alteration in original)).


         Plaintiff brings this action under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) claiming that Defendants have violated the ESA by improperly “taking” the animals at issue. Defendants contend that the ESA is inapplicable to the instant case because it does not apply to animals that are held in captivity. Rather, Defendants argue, the Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”) preempts, supersedes, or nullifies an action brought under the ESA. Defendants further argue that even if the action could be brought under the ESA, the Plaintiff has not alleged facts sufficient to state a claim that Defendants have engaged in a “take” of a threatened or endangered species, and that any relief Plaintiff requests is speculative and conjectural.

         The Court will first address the statutory backgrounds of the ESA and AWA and the applicability of these statutes to this action. Next, the Court will determine whether PETA has stated a plausible claim for its action to proceed and for a remedy from Defendants.

         A. The Statutes: the ESA and the AWA

         i. The Endangered Species Act ...

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