- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The state agency that regulates wild and exotic animals in Iowa is misinterpreting a nearly decade-old law that imposes tough rules for keeping such animals, according to advocacy groups involved in a legal challenge.

The Animal Rescue League of Iowa and the Washington-based Born Free USA filed documents in February to the Iowa Court of Appeals that contend the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship limits its own authority in overseeing some facilities that exhibit wildlife in the state.

“This is about, at its heart, ensuring that common-sense laws passed for the sake of animal welfare and public safety need to be followed and enforced,” said Kate Dylewsky, of Born Free USA.

The state agriculture department said in court documents it’s following the 2007 state law and doesn’t have the authority to change its oversight. A district court judge sided with the agency in January. Department spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef declined to comment pending the litigation before the Court of Appeals.

The law bans people in Iowa from keeping wild and exotic animals as pets, though previous owners were grandfathered in with new registration requirements. It included such animals be microchipped, liability insurance be maintained for each of them and an inventory be provided to state officials.

The advocacy groups argue the department is misinterpreting exemption language in the law when considering some wildlife owners who secure licenses to exhibit through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The groups say those entities, which include so-called roadside zoos, circumvent registration rules by completing a brief form to state officials and paying an annual permit fee of $175.

The state agriculture department says language in the law allows that separate registration process for USDA-licensed entities and it fulfills their exemption requirements.

Currently 15 entities in Iowa have a USDA license to exhibit a wildlife animal, according to the state agriculture department. Six others follow the state registration rules.

Jessica Blome, an attorney with California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, helps represent the advocacy organizations. She helped challenge alleged safety violations at a roadside zoo in eastern Iowa in 2014 involving endangered species like tigers and lemurs. The facility, Cricket Hollow Zoo, was licensed by the USDA and later ordered to transfer those animals. The zoo owners have maintained they did nothing wrong.

Blome said the USDA doesn’t require microchipping or insurance liability coverage for exhibited animals, including those at Cricket Hollow Zoo.

“Iowa decided it wanted to fill those gaps,” she said of the law. “It doesn’t want to have to deal with animal escapes without having any information about the animals that were in the facilities. It doesn’t want to have to deal with animal escapes or human incidents without knowing that there’s some money there that could cover the cost of that incident.”

The Office of the Inspector General for the USDA released an audit in 2010 that reviewed licensing for animal exhibitors. The report, the most recent, acknowledged state governments have separate animal welfare legislation that may have stricter regulations. Those should be followed, it read. It noted the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the licensing process, “does not supersede state and local authorities or restrict them in any way when their laws are more stringent.”

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the USDA encourages states and municipalities to develop animal welfare regulations because “there are certain things that we may or may not cover and … they can cover more stringently.”

Espinosa didn’t elaborate on whether Iowa officials should do things differently.

“It’s not our job to say whether or not the state is right or wrong in interpreting the state’s law,” she said.

Jacob Larson, an assistant attorney general for the Iowa Attorney General’s office representing the state agriculture department, said the USDA comments are not part of the legal challenge. He emphasized the Iowa Legislature has issued clear instructions, and the agency is following them.

The appeals court is expected to make a ruling this year. In the meantime, Blome said there’s an ineffective system in Iowa. She believes if insurance liability had been maintained at Cricket Hollow Zoo for each animal, cases of safety concerns and injuries could have been minimalized or prevented.

“The public certainly thinks the law is in place,” she said. “So the public thinks it’s protected, and that’s the real problem.”

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