Laws That Protect Animal and Human “Workers”Posted by Daniel Lutz, ALDF Litigation Fellow on May 1, 2014
On October 5, 2013, an employee at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma suffered serious injuries when a tiger nearly ripped off her arm.
Following the tiger attack, ALDF and other organizations submitted complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in December 2013. OSHA responded with gusto, initiating an investigation only two days after receiving ALDF’s complaint. The four-month investigation led to a citation for numerous violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s “general duty clause.” OSHA found that G.W. Exotics creates risk of death or serious physical harm by exposing human employees to contact with wild animals. The agency proposed a $5,200 fine (now negotiated to $2,400) for failing to protect employees, via protective barriers, from contact with wild animals.
Often, when it comes to abuses at zoos and other captive animal entertainment facilities, the harmed “employees” are not workers but rather captive animals. For example, over twenty tigers recently died at G.W. Exotics. When animals are injured or killed by captivity conditions, OSHA cannot investigate what went wrong and enforce the law. Instead, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has jurisdiction, under the Animal Welfare Act.
Captive animal abuses—even clear Animal Welfare Act violations—rarely lead to more than a slap on the wrist. In a 2010 internal audit, the USDA itself said, “In 1995 and again in 2005, we reported that the monetary penalties were often so low that violators regarded them as a cost of business and that APHIS reduced the stipulations by making them basically meaningless. In our current audit, we found that this problem has not yet been corrected.”
So how encouraging, then, to learn that OSHA responded quickly to the G.W. Exotics attack! While “general duty clause” enforcement is not a sufficient replacement for an industry-wide rule requiring a permanent physical barrier between employees and animals—for which ALDF has petitioned—OSHA’s enforcement actions were noteworthy for three reasons.
- OSHA found that G.W. Exotics “did not adequately protect employees” because it had failed to erect protective barriers separating the employees from dangerous wild animals. Being struck, mauled or bitten by such animals is now a recognized industry hazard.
- OSHA’s enforcement against animal entertainment facilities like G.W. Exotics was recently buoyed by a decision of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, OSHA similarly issued a “general duty clause” citation to SeaWorld for the death of an orca trainer. Over SeaWorld’s objections that human interaction with orcas does not pose a “hazard,” the Court scoffed. Writing for the majority, Judge Judith Rogers wrote, “The nature of SeaWorld’s workplace and the unusual nature of the hazard to its employees performing in close physical contact with killer whales do not remove SeaWorld from its obligation under the General Duty Clause to protect its employees from recognized hazards.”
- On top of the penalty, OSHA required “abatement,” or that G.W. Exotics take steps to remove the dangerous animal hazard. OSHA specifically suggested that G.W. Exotics follow safety standards set by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), the preeminent certification body for animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities.
OSHA deserves kudos for its attention to human-wild animal interactions at decrepit, dangerous animal exhibitor facilities. An industry-wide permanent barrier rule would best protect employees and animals alike at facilities across the nation. But at least in the case of G.W. Exotics, the agency has indirectly yet powerfully encouraged the humane, responsible care of captive animals through its emphasis on employee safety.