USDA Should Strengthen Licensing Requirements for Exhibitors of Exotic Animals

By: Lexy Gross

Inadequate veterinary care for animals. “Euthanizing” a leopard with a baseball bat. Failure to meet animal enclosure standards for full-grown tigers. Illegal declawing of big cats.

These are a few of the complaints the U.S. Department of Agriculture has documented in various inspection reports while visiting the popular Wildlife In Need animal rehabilitation center in Charlestown, Indiana.[i] After the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) found repeat violations of the Animal Welfare Act, it filed multiple complaints with the USDA’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in an attempt to revoke owner Tim Stark’s license to exhibit exotic animals.[ii] Stark was “tickled to death” after an ALJ ruled the USDA could not revoke his license in September 2016.[iii] Although he was convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act in 2008, the USDA renewed Stark’s license afterward, and he has only faced alleged violations of animal welfare laws since in USDA inspections.[iv]

Following the USDA’s repeated attempts to revoke Stark’s license to exhibit exotic animals, the animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Wildlife In Need and alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act.[v] Additionally, a recent USDA animal trafficking sweep in Southern California revealed that Stark sold a Bengal tiger to a man who was later arrested after the tiger was found to be several hundred pounds underweight, and the FBI found that he had also falsified documents.[vi]

Perhaps due to its repeated failed attempts to revoke Stark’s license and those held by owners of dozens of other U.S. facilities like his, APHIS is considering comments on proposed rules that would give the agency more power to revoke an exhibitor’s license.[vii] The agency’s current inability to revoke exhibitors’ licenses stems from a regulation that does not require a licensee to comply with animal welfare laws as long has he or she attempts to make some change to the violation reported by an inspector.[viii] To renew a license, the exhibitor need only pay outstanding fees and fill out the necessary paperwork.[ix] Once this is done, the USDA cannot revoke a license unless the licensee is actually convicted of violating a federal animal welfare statute.[x] In 2017, APHIS gave licenses to nearly 8,000 people under the Animal Welfare Act—most of which were licenses to exhibit exotic animals.[xi]

The proposed rules—which APHIS took comments on through November 2, 2017—would require more proof that exhibitors are complying with animal welfare laws and would set a license duration of three to five years.[xii] At that point, APHIS would inspect the licensee’s facilities before renewing it, and it would require compliance with federal regulations after renewal.[xiii] APHIS has received more than 47,000 comments on the regulation changes so far.[xiv]

Because the current licensing requirements are little more than filling out paperwork, APHIS has no power to enforce its own regulations after it issues an initial license to an exhibitor. This leads to noncompliance that, in the case of Wildlife In Need and other roadside zoos, has lasted for at least five years. APHIS should be able to review the applicant’s history of compliance on a regular basis to determine if the applicant should keep their license. As Delcianna Winders of the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Program explained in The Courier-Journal, “it’s past time for the agency to stop automatically renewing licenses and make good on Congress’s intent that it protect animals.”[xv]

[i] Bobby Shipman & Kristina Goetz, USDA Files Formal Complaint Against Wildlife in Need, Courier-J. (July 14, 2016, 5:51 PM),

[ii] Id.

[iii] Madeline Winer, Controversial Wildlife Exhibit to Remain Open, Courier-J. (Sept. 21, 2016, 6:53 PM),

[iv] Id.

[v] Elizabeth Beilman, PETA Sues Charlestown's Wildlife in Need, News and Tribune (Oct. 2, 2017),

[vi] Yelena Dzhanova, Agents Make Arrests, Rescue Smuggled Exotic Animals in ‘Operation Jungle Book’, NBC (Oct. 21, 2017, 3:03 PM)

[vii] Greg Cima, APHIS Considers Stricter Animal Welfare Licensing, J. Am. Veterinary Med. Ass’n. (Oct. 15, 2017),

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] 9 C.F.R. § 2.11 (2004).

[xi] AWA Inspection and Annual Reports, U.S. Dept. of Ag. (Aug. 18, 2017),

[xii] See Cima supra note vii.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Animal Welfare; Procedures for Applying for Licenses and Renewals, 82 Fed. Reg. 48938 (Oct. 23, 2107) (to be codified at 9 C.F.R. pt. 1 and 2).

[xv] Delcianna Winders, USDA Complicit for Renewing License, Courier-J. (July 18, 2016, 5:56 PM),