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Supreme Court declines Cumberland zoo’s appeal of pro-PETA ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a Cumberland zoo’s bid to recover a lion and two tigers removed from the facility for their safety under a judge’s order issued at the urging of an animal rights group.

In a one-line order, the justices let stand without comment a federal appeals court decision that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had legal standing to sue the Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland for removal of the big cats even though no PETA member had ever visited the zoo.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis’ December 2019 order that the animals be removed  to a sanctuary after concluding that deplorable conditions at the zoo had contributed to four animal deaths since 2016.

The 4th Circuit found PETA had organizational standing to sue the zoo based on its mission of protecting animals and its expenditure of time and money toward that effort, prompting the zoo’s unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review.

The case was docketed at the Supreme Court as Tri-State Zoological Park of Western Maryland Inc. v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc., No. 20-1183.

In the failed petition for review, the zoo’s attorneys argued that an organization’s mission and its diversion of resources are insufficient to confer legal standing to the group. The organization’s lawsuit must include at least one person who was injured by the defendant’s actions, such as a visitor to the zoo who saw and was repulsed by the mistreatment, wrote Nevin L. Young and Lynn T. Krause.

“At no time in this case did PETA make any claim to stand in the shoes of its members, or that any of its members had visited the zoo, were upset by the zoo, had any aesthetic interest in or personal attachment to the animals at the zoo, or that any of its members would benefit from injunctive relief,” such as removal of the animals, Young and Krause wrote in the petition.

“Neither was there any contention that the zoo had taken any actions against PETA, other than carrying on its usual business, to which PETA takes exception,” the Annapolis lawyers added. “A claim of injury must be more than a talismanic invocation of an organization’s mission statement. This (Supreme) Court should intervene to clarify when an organization can claim an injury-in-fact, and to declare that voluntary mission advancement and voluntary expenditures do not constitute injury-in-fact.”

PETA, in its successful request that the justices decline review, said it has organizational standing because its mission is to protect animals and it sustains a compensable injury whenever it must take someone to court to safeguard wildlife.

“(A)n organization has standing when the defendant’s unlawful conduct causes injury to the organization by frustrating its mission, requiring the organization to respond by diverting resources to address that harm,” PETA’s counsel of record, Marcos E. Hasbun, wrote in the group’s brief to the justices.

“Particularly given the gravity of Tri-State’s uniquely egregious conduct, PETA’s mission required the organization to divert its limited resources away from other programs in order to protect its own mission,” added Hasbun, of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Tampa, Florida. “In addition to staff time, PETA incurred numerous costs related to these efforts, including attorneys’ fees; research expenses; filing fees; phone charges; fees for shipping and printing services; and travel expenses.”

PETA sued the 16-acre zoo in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt in 2017 amid reports of mistreatment of animals at the facility.

Xinis found the group had standing to sue and after a six-day trial ruled that the zoo had engaged in “flagrant and persistent violations” of the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Rotting vegetables spilled over large receptacles, decaying meat sat in piles outside the kitchen and in the furnace room under the nearby reptile house, and decomposing carcasses were left for days in the enclosures for the tigers and lions,” Xinis wrote in ordering that the lion and two tigers be transferred to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado.

At least four animals died amid these woeful conditions between 2016 and 2019, Xinis stated: Mbube the lion was euthanized after “a slow painful demise” from an unknown disease; Bandit the lemur died following a two-year respiratory infection and “chronic stress;” and tigers Kumar and India died of a stroke and sepsis, respectively.

In January, the 4th Circuit upheld Xinis’ decision — including her finding of PETA’s standing — in an unpublished per curiam opinion. The zoo then sought Supreme Court review.

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