CHICAGO – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is suing for documents that could shed light on the 2015 deaths of 54 stingrays that were part of an exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo.
For several years now, the animal rights group has asked the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which in partnership with the Chicago Zoological Society operates and maintains the private, nonprofit zoo, to turn over documents that detail the events that lead to the stingray deaths, according to court records. PETA, who says the county hasn’t responded to the request, filed a lawsuit last week in Cook County Circuit Court, asking a judge to order the forest preserves to turn over the documents.
“It simply seems that they don’t want to come clean on the cause of these mass deaths,” said Jared Goodman, an attorney for the national animal rights organization.
PETA is also hoping the records spell out how the zoo plans to prevent it from happening again and learn about the partnership with SeaWorld, he said.
Stacina Stagner, a forest preserve spokeswoman, says the county doesn’t have any of the documents.
“Brookfield Zoo is run by a nonprofit agency that receives the overwhelming majority of its funding from private donations,” Stagner said in an email. The zoo also receives county tax dollars to run its operation.
Stagner is referring to the Chicago Zoological Society, whose spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
PETA has been waging a public records battle against the Forest Preserves since October 2016. It stems from July 10, 2015, when 54 stingrays in the Brookfield Zoo’s “Stingray Bay” exhibit died after some type of malfunction caused oxygen levels in the habitat to drop, zoo officials said at the time. The exhibit was run in conjunction with SeaWorld, according to the lawsuit. Officials from SeaWorld did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although staff did “everything possible to try and save the animals,” zoo leadership told the Chicago Tribune at the time, four southern and 50 cow-nose stingrays were dead within hours. It wasn’t the first time a set of stingrays died at the zoo located in Brookfield. In July 2008, 16 stingrays died when the water temperature in the pool rose by 10 degrees and a cooling system failed, officials said at the time.
PETA claims the Forest Preserve withholding records about the stingray exhibit amounts to a “cover-up.” Attorneys for PETA argue in the complaint that Brookfield Zoo records should be public because of its partnership with the Forest Preserves, a government entity that is subject to public records requests.
And because of that, Goodman said PETA believes the public has a right to know how the government responded to the stingray deaths.
The state attorney general’s office, which fielded a complaint over the public records issue, sided with PETA, determining that records about the stingray exhibit and the SeaWorld partnership are public records because they directly related to the government function that the Forest Preserves has contracted with the Chicago Zoological Society to perform, the opinion states.
In 2011, the attorney general’s office determined in another case that the Chicago Zoological Society’s relationship with the forest preserves’ amounted to a government function, making it subject to public records requests, according to documents PETA shared with the Tribune.
A hearing on the lawsuit has been scheduled for Nov. 6.
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