Lion cub laying on an adult lion

Press Release

Animal Legal Defense Fund Urges USDA to Strengthen Regulations for Handling and Exhibiting Wild and Exotic Animals

Recommendations aim to decrease risk of zoonotic disease spread, animal escapes and attacks, and psychological and physical harm to the animals


WASHINGTON D.C. — This week the Animal Legal Defense Fund submitted comments to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) advocating for limitations on public contact with animals, improved enrichment standards, and training for personnel who handle the animals to inform future proposed changes to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) relating to exhibited wild and exotic animals.

The comments assert the USDA should ban direct contact between animals and the public because that contact creates a risk of zoonotic disease spread, psychological and physical injury to animals, and physical injury to people. Such a ban should include prohibitions of drive-through exhibits, walk-through exhibits that do not provide a complete physical barrier between human visitors and exhibited animals, and animal performances. The comments explain that the ban is necessary because the USDA’s existing regulations fail to protect animals used in entertainment. For example, the USDA continued to authorize traveling menagerie owner Robert Sawmiller to operate for years with an AWA license, even though a municipal court had in 2016 convicted him of violating an animal welfare law.

“It’s critical that Animal Welfare Act protections for exhibited wild animals are strengthened to improve the animals’ wellbeing, increase public safety, and help reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases — like the COVID-19 pandemic and avian flu outbreaks — that can occur from direct contact with humans,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Managing Attorney Daniel Waltz. “The Animal Legal Defense Fund comments for strengthening the Animal Welfare Act will help the USDA fulfill the law’s statutory mandate of ensuring the humane treatment of animals.”

Since environmental enrichment is essential to animal wellbeing, the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s comments also urge the USDA to require regulated facilities develop and implement environmental enrichment plans and daily enrichment schedules for all species of captive animals. The USDA should promulgate clear standards specific to each species to promote physical and psychological wellbeing. In particular, facilities that keep animals known to belong to social species should house them in appropriate social groupings with members of their own species.

To ensure adequate training for staff handling wild and exotic animals, the comments recommend that AWA-licensed facilities submit their staff and veterinarian credentials to the USDA and provide continuing animal handling education for staff.

Since 1998, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has brought legal challenges against the USDA for failing to meet the minimum requirements set forth in the AWA. Active matters include: a complaint to the USDA asking the agency not to reissue an AWA license to Pennsylvania roadside zoo Claws ‘N’ Paws; a lawsuit following a denied petition for rulemaking decision to establish procedures for relocating animals from facilities that do not comply with the Animal Welfare Act; and demanding enforcement of the AWA where users on YouTube, TikTok, and other social media platforms exhibit animals without proper licensing.

Sign Up!

Join the Animal Legal Defense Fund's email list to stay up to date on lawsuits, legislation, and regulations affecting animals.

Sign Up Now