Challenging the USDA for Renewing AWA License of Disreputable Wildlife Trafficker and Exhibitor

A lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for renewing Robert Sawmiller’s license to engage in activities regulated by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).


August 5, 2021

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USDA cancelled Robert Sawmiller’s license in August 2021.

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On March 9, 2021, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for renewing Robert Sawmiller’s license to engage in activities regulated by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The Animal Legal Defense Fund had previously presented the USDA with “smoking gun” evidence of Sawmiller’s chronic AWA violations, which have led to numerous animal deaths in his possession. Sawmiller does business under the name Wildlife on Wheels — a traveling menagerie — and houses the animals at two facilities in Ohio and Indiana.

The AWA requires animal exhibitors and dealers to demonstrate compliance with the AWA, which is required by the Act before a license can be issued. As part of the AWA license renewal process, Sawmiller was required to submit a timely application that certified his operation was in compliance with the regulations and standards of the AWA. Sawmiller failed to submit his application on time — which should have led to automatic license termination — but the USDA nonetheless renewed the license. And when the USDA rubberstamped its approval of Sawmiller’s renewal application, the agency ignored its own records of Sawmiller’s persistent violations of the AWA protections. One such instance occurred during a March 2020 inspection where a USDA inspector identified injuries on animals, of which Sawmiller was unaware.

Since as early as 2010, Sawmiller has received multiple non-compliance reports and official warnings from the USDA. His inspection immediately prior to the license renewal, on March 4, 2020, resulted in nineteen total non-compliances with AWA regulations, eleven of which were repeat and three “direct.” Direct non-compliances, which “adversely affect the health and well-being of the animal,” are the most serious violations a USDA inspector can report. After renewing the license, the USDA inspected again on February 1, 2021 and found multiple “direct” violations, including that an “inadequately insulated shelter has led to a state of unrelieved suffering” for a brown bear cub in “poor body condition.”

In December 2020, the Animal Legal Defense Fund executed a court order, seizing three animals from Robert Sawmiller near Wapakoneta, Ohio. The animals rescued included two wolves, Nikko and Atlas and one Labrador, named Fancy, who was used in a puppy breeding scheme. Fancy was adopted, and the wolves are under the care of the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

Attorneys from Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP are contributing legal assistance to this case.

Court where the case was filed? U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Who is being sued, why, and under what law? U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for violating the Administrative Procedure Act by renewing Sawmiller’s license despite multiple inspection reports of non-compliance under the Animal Welfare Act.

Why this case is important: In May of 2020, the USDA issued a new rule requiring exhibitors to prove they are in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act before their license could be renewed. Previously, exhibitor license holders were able to self-identify as compliant. This rule was issued after the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the USDA for renewing the exhibitor license of Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa — despite numerous violations noted in USDA inspectors’ reports. In a victory for animal protection oversight, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the USDA cannot “arbitrarily and capriciously” renew an exhibitor license to a roadside zoo it knows is in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. This lawsuit will challenge the renewed license of an infamous wild animal exhibitor and dealer — with the intention of having his USDA exhibitor license revoked.

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