Buttonwood Park Zoo Defeats Endangered Species Act Lawsuit

by Michelle C. Pardo

We previously blogged about an Endangered Species Act (ESA) lawsuit which pitted an animal rights activist against the Buttonwood Park Zoo (owned and operated by the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts). The zoo’s two elephants, Emily and Ruth, approximately 55 and 61 years old, respectively, have spent the greater part of their lives at Buttonwood Park. In 2017, longtime zoo patron Joyce Rowley, an animal rights activist who runs Friends of Ruth & Emily, an organization “dedicated to retiring Asian elephants Ruth and Emily from Buttonwood Park Zoo,” brought a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court against the zoo. Rowley claimed that the zoo was committing an illegal “take” of the elephants when it failed to provide them with, among other things, adequate veterinary care and socialization, including a failure to protect one of the elephants from its more aggressive elephant companion. Her requested relief included confiscation of the elephants and relocating them to an elephant “sanctuary.”

Surviving early challenges to have the case dismissed, the plaintiff had her day in court — a three-day bench trial which occurred in March of 2019. On September 24, 2019, the court issued a thirty-two page opinion, finding in favor of the zoo. Joyce Rowley v. City of New Bedford, MA (1:17-cv-11809)(Findings of Fact, Rulings of Law, and Order for Judgment). After a summary of the ESA and Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations that apply to animal care and husbandry practices, the court considered whether Rowley’s concerns rose to the level of “harm” or “harassment” prohibited by the ESA.  This required the court to analyze whether the zoo’s animal practices are “generally accepted” and whether the zoo complied with the governing AWA regulations.

In considering many aspects of the care and habitat of Emily and Ruth, the court found:

Rowley faults the City for being behind the curve in every respect. The Court finds the contrary to be true. Indeed, commendably, the City has supported its zoo with an adequate budget; has attracted a cadre of dedicated, professional, empathetic, and innovative zookeepers; and has employed top notch veterinarians wherever necessary. The pace of change at the City Zoo has been commensurate with the evolution of elephant husbandry.

Op. at 17-18.

Notably, the court recognized that while Rowley is a “keen and frequent visitor to the City’s elephants,” she “is neither a zookeeper or veterinarian.” Op. at 30. While a seemingly obvious conclusion, it is commendable that the court recognized this fact.  A shared feature of many animal rights lawsuits are allegations based upon observations and conclusions of individuals who have no animal welfare or medical training and, often, staunchly oppose any animal living in human care.

A significant area of dispute at trial was whether the elephants were engaging in “stereotypic behaviors,” whether such behaviors are abnormal, and importantly, whether such behaviors cause the elephants harm. The court appropriately recognized that not all repetitive behaviors are “stereotypic” and concluded that, in any event, any repetitive behaviors that Emily and Ruth engaged in did not actually injure them or significantly disrupt their normal behavioral patterns, such as is required by the governing regulations.

While this case, and other animal rights lawsuits, often label zoological care as per se inadequate if they do not exactly replicate the species’ wild environment, the court had a different view:

The reference standard for an endangered species in captivity is not a goal requiring the least restrictive environment or the most natural possible setting. Rather, it is generally accepted and appropriate animal husbandry.

Op. at 21.

Judicial decisions like this one are important to licensed, responsible animal exhibitors who are providing their animals with excellent veterinary and husbandry care every day. While many animal activist lawsuits are populated with rhetoric, pseudo-science, and ideological spins on facts, this case thankfully did not turn on speculation and anthropomorphizing, and delivered a rational and systematic opinion, tethered to the applicable statute and regulations and analysis of generally-accepted animal care.

Rowley, who represented herself in the lawsuit, has already told the media that she plans to appeal  (a copy of the court’s decision can be found here).