People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is suing the Cook County Forest Preserve District in hopes of using the Freedom of Information Act to force the Chicago Zoological Society to turn over documents regarding the deaths of dozens of stingrays at the Brookfield Zoo.
The underlying issue is the death of the entire ray population at Brookfield Zoo on July 10, 2015. PETA is seeking records about Sea World as well as the 54 dead cownose and stingrays. According to PETA, which filed a complaint July 9 on Cook County Circuit Court, the arrangement under which the Zoological Society owns and manages Brookfield on Forest Preserve District land establishes the Society as performing a governmental function, making them subject to the FOIA law.
According to the complaint, PETA submitted its initial FOIA request on Oct. 24, 2016, saying the zoo never disclosed what led to the July 10 death of 50 cownose rays and four southern stingrays that lived in a saltwater tank as part of the zoo’s Stingray Bay exhibit, a partnership with Sea World that opened in 2007.
The nonprofit group amended its request four days later, narrowing the scope of requested documents to those from 2012 and only related to Sea World or the Stingray Bay exhibit. The district responded on Nov. 7, offering some information but none specific to the request, PETA said. According to PETA, the forest preserve district wrote: “Beyond the revenue provided by the district to the zoo for carious capital improvements, the district does not have any involvement with the zoo or the Chicago Zoological Society’s operation of Sea World or any other marina mammal exhibit. … The operation of marine mammal exhibits does not involve a governmental function under the purview of the district.”
PETA asked the attorney general’s office to review the matter on Jan. 6, 2017. On Jan. 18, the office asked the district to provide a written response to PETA’s request. After several document exchanges, the Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau Chief Steve Silverman on Feb. 8 announced his office had determined the forest preserve district’s response to PETA violated FOIA requirements.
In that finding, the attorney general’s office explained the law creating the forest preserve district specifically authorizes it to maintain a zoo directly or through a contract, and that the contract with the zoological society establishes a governmental function relationship.
The complaint detailed PETA’s further efforts to get the district to provide records before and after mandated deadlines up through May 7, 2018, more than 18 months from the initial request and more than three months since Silverman’s announcement, which carried with it a five-day deadline to produce records.
PETA maintained it still has not seen the requested records despite consistently extending the deadline. It wants the court to formally declare the society to be performing a governmental function by running the zoo on behalf of the district, to declare related records public with respect to FOIA, to compel the district to release the requested records and to award it legal costs and fees associated with the complaint.
Representing PETA in the matter are attorneys Jon R. Buck, Jillian Sommers and Donald Baur, of Perkins Coie LLP, with offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well as Jared Goodman, PETA’s deputy general counsel for animal law, of Los Angeles.