By Enrique Lopetegui
“There is no case, there is no investigation,” former Wild Animal Orphanage attorney Eric Turton (and other Carol Asvestas supporters) repeatedly told the Current and anyone asking about the status of the WAO cases with the USDA.
Well, it seems that, after all, yes, there is (or was until very recently) an investigation going on, according to USDA spokesperson Dave Sacks.
But this phone conversation from October 2009 is not only about that, but about the animal laws (or lack of) in this country. Next time you hear, "There is no case against WAO," send him/her this link.
Did WAO ever show the USDA records of animal deaths?
I can give you some information, but my hands are tight, because this case is still open. So, as such, no government public affairs office is…
Oh… The case is still open? Since when?
I believe January of 2007. An investigation is our formal way of officially documenting the facts surrounding allegations of Animal Welfare Act violation. A complaint, on the other hand, these are submitted by any individual at all, a regular citizen, animal rights worker, or what have you. They have a concern about an alleged violation and they contact us and, then, we take them all seriously across the board and we look at them that way. But an investigation is a formal way of documenting the facts surrounding allegations. A complaint is just the very first step where someone says, “Hey, there is something here… This looks like some alleged improper animal condition,” and that sort of thing. This investigation… It was a result of our inspection findings rather than any complaint that came in, so we actually…
So there is an investigation?
Well… We did look into it formally. It was a result of our official fact checking and the process came after our inspection findings. So, when we conduct inspections and we see things that are not to our liking according to the Animal Welfare Act, then we can… It’s kind of a step-up to possible enforcement actions. You know… It can come from a complaint or our own inspections. In this case it was from our own findings.
Is that a yes? Is there is an investigation going on?
An early agreement between the USDA and WAO included a monkey care violation. Why was that violation erased from the final agreement?
Again I don’t have that information because I’m limited on what I can say and what information I can dig in my end of things. Again, I don’t have that because the case is still open. I couldn’t… Even if I had that information I wouldn’t be able to comment on that until [the case] is completely closed. At which point a reporter, like yourself, or a member of the general public, can file a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the completed paper work and the all the documents related to the case.
Well, I did… But I was surprised to find that I and get all kinds of personal information except, precisely, anything related with official WAO animal deaths. Why don’t they make records of animal deaths public?
Just to give you some information regarding that: The Animal Welfare Act does not require license holders to notify us of every animal death. I mean… You have to realize all the license holders that we inspect across the country, and all the animals that are involved, and all the zoos, and all the exhibitors, and all the circuses… That’s a lot of animals. So when we go in we are basically checking on the health and the well-being of the animals that are there on-site the days that we make our inspections. Now… A lot of the license holders self-report deaths to us…
So, if you kill them, it’s OK?
I’m not saying it’s OK. We… There are different ways we can find out about animal deaths. Sometimes, like I said, the license holder will self-report it to us and then we go in there and our inspectors will look to see, to their best of their knowledge, if the animal died of natural cause or that sort of thing. We can sometime find out through the press, that’s happened before. We sometimes have been tipped-off by people within the facility itself. So you know, there are different ways we find out. The zoo keepers and the license holders keep their logs of animals that come in and leave their facilities. So, they keep records of things. But the Animal Welfare Act, which is what we enforce, that specific legislation does not required them to file with us of every single death. Now, if there is some alleged animal abuse or something like that, then you can bet we’re going to go on there and take a look at things.
Do you know when the case will be completed?
The closest I can come to getting information about that for you is possibly in two weeks.
[After two weeks, he wrote me back saying that I should submit another FOIA request]
What good are the inspections if you don’t have access to animal records?
Like I said, the AWA doesn’t require license holders to submit to us animal deaths; some of them do, but they are not required. So, when our inspectors go into these facilities, you know… We’re looking at the animals that are there, we’re looking to see if they are being properly taking care of, if they’re getting the nutrition they need, if they are protected from the elements of extreme weather, if they are separated from potential…
What’s the point of the Act then?
It’s a numbers game. If you are an inspector and you’re going into the San Antonio Zoo, say… And again, that’s a lot of animals in there… That’s a lot of… And the fact of the matter is… You know… I mean… The fact remains: Animals die. And you know, it’s not something where…
But when you don’t have crystal-clear and public animal record, then you rely on independent studies, and one claims that 1,000 animals died in 10 years at WAO. That’s 100 animals per year!
Again, they are not obliged to [reveal animal deaths] … But many of them do self-report. If you have a bat exhibit and you have 150 bats in there, well… Some of those bats are going to die just from natural causes and from competition and all that regular stuff, you know… It will take an enormous amount of time for an inspector to go in there and match those records. Now, what we do is we work with these license holders, we educate them. We don’t come in there, it’s not Us vs Them, so to speak. We work with them to try to pull them to full compliance with the AWA. We’re not turning a blind eye to animal deaths; we’re not turning a blind eye to animal mistreat, but it’s just… You know… That Act covers a wide range of things, it’s does not specify [anything] about the animal deaths.
If 50 animals died a preventable death, what’s the value of the inspection then?
If we go in there and we see that there is a lot less animals than there were [before], that’s going to raise some flags to our inspectors and they are going to look into the matter. They’ll talk to the veterinarians in that facility, they’ll talk with the license holders themselves.
Did you do that at WAO?
Like I said, that case is open so, you know… You can’t ask me about that, I can’t comment about that.
Bottom line is: A bunch of monkeys allegedly freeze to death, and nobody knows what happens and WAO gets slapped in the wrist…
You keep saying “nobody knows.” It’s going through the legal process right now. I think you’ll see a much more clear picture once this case runs its course. We don’t want to tamper on with an ongoing investigation, so we don’t release any of that information until that case is officially closed.
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