D. C. Circuit Rules That USDA Must Reconsider Decision to Renew the License of Chronic Violator of the Animal Welfare Act

For the first time in the history of the Animal Welfare Act, a court has ruled that the USDA may not renew a license of a chronic violator of the Act based on the exhibitor’s mere “certification” that it is in compliance with all Animal Welfare Act standards when the record before the agency shows that the exhibitor has habitually been cited for major violations of the statute.  With in-house counsel from the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), we represented ALDF and two women who had visited the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Iowa on several occasions and witnessed animals being deprived of water, clean cages, and basic veterinary care, as well as primates being housed in isolation from other primates.  Despite repeatedly citing the Zoo for AWA violations and internal USDA memoranda acknowledging that the Zoo was a “chronic” violator of the statute, the USDA kept perfunctorily renewing the Zoo’s AWA license each year claiming that the agency was required to do so under its regulations that provide for such renewals upon the payment of a renewal fee and a certification that the exhibitor is in compliance with all applicable AWA standards. Plaintiffs argued that this system violates the plain language of the AWA and that the issuance of this Zoo’s renewal license was arbitrary and capricious, particularly when the USDA knew that the certification was false.  Although the D.C. Circuit disagreed with our statutory argument, it nevertheless held that in light of the “smoking gun” evidence that this Zoo was repeatedly operating in violation of the AWA, including on the very day that it received its most recent license renewal, the district court erred in not determining whether the renewal decision was arbitrary and capricious.  The D.C. Circuit therefore reversed the district court on this aspect of the case and remanded the case for this determination.  A copy of the decision can be found here.