By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The mistreatment of animals is a matter of injustice, and so it’s only fitting that the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to stop cruelty at Even Keel Exotics in Temperance, Michigan.
The DOJ’s recent resolution of a complaint against the facility’s owner, animal dealer Zachery Keeler, resulted in his surrender of nearly 150 animals and the revocation of his Animal Welfare Act license to buy, sell or trade animals regulated under the Act.
This case exemplifies what is possible when two federal agencies (in this case the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the DOJ) work in tandem to address animal welfare violations. The principle of coordinated action between these two agencies is at the heart of the recently introduced Better Collaboration, Accountability, and Regulatory Enforcement (CARE) for Animals Act a priority measure for us in the 118th Congress.
Some of the stories surfacing from the Even Keel Exotics complaint are heart-wrenching. It alleges that Even Keel Exotics violated the Endangered Species Act by prematurely separating a mother ring-tailed lemur from her infant, who was still nursing, to interact with the public, and then attempting to sell the baby lemur for $3,500.
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Other allegations involve Animal Welfare Act violations including failure to provide potable water to animals as needed, failure to ensure safe and sanitary conditions and facilities, and repeated failure to provide access to USDA inspectors responsible for ensuring the health and well-being of the animals at the facility.
For years, Even Keel Exotics has been selling wild cats, wallabies and foxes as pets and offering public contact and handling with various species including armadillos, capybaras, coatimundis, foxes, lemurs and porcupines. The enterprise has been cited 111 times between 2011 and 2023, including 47 repeat, 14 direct, and 11 critical violations. Citations include unsafe handling of a coatimundi and a baby fox who bit children (resulting in one child’s having to undergo post-rabies exposure vaccination and the coatimundi’s being killed to test for rabies); failure to provide veterinary care to multiple species, including prairie dogs with apparent neurological disorders; failure to provide drinking water; and multiple citations for unkempt enclosures with rodent and fly infestations.
Just since 2021, Even Keel Exotics has failed to provide access to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service officials for inspections at its facility on a dozen occasions, including one streak of eight denials in a row and one incident when inspectors left after they were threatened with trespass. During the inspections completed by APHIS during that period, inspectors issued 21 direct or critical citations that had “serious or severe adverse effect on the health and well-being of the animal[s].”
When the operator provided them with access to the Even Keel Exotics facility on June 29, 2023, APHIS officials observed violations of 20 different provisions of the Animal Welfare Act and its implementing regulations and standards. These violations included five citations for the most serious types of noncompliant items related to the mistreatment of five cats and eight kittens, who were living in filthy conditions without food and water.
Other citations were issued for failure to provide veterinary care to prairie dogs, Richardson’s ground squirrels, baby foxes and a cavy; failure to provide drinking water to thirsty Arctic foxes, a rabbit, a capybara, a hog, an African crested porcupine and a cavy; failure to address filthy, infested conditions that included extremely high ammonia levels in the hedgehog breeding room, enclosures with excessive feces and food waste, and rodent and fly infestations; and failure to maintain animal enclosures properly.
The complaint against Even Keel Exotics relied solely on violations uncovered during the last two years.
Sadly, Even Keel Exotics is not an anomaly; there are many others across the country where APHIS inspectors discover serious and repeated evidence of animal cruelty and mistreatment. It’s a win that the DOJ was able to act on behalf of animals under both the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act, and that’s just one more reason we believe the DOJ needs some of the same enforcement tools available to the USDA already. That’s the basic premise of the Better CARE for Animals Act, and it’s at the heart of our view that a whole-of-government approach, one that unites federal agencies in joint, coordinated action in support of animal welfare, is simply what the animals in our society deserve.
The Better CARE for Animals Act reflects the nation’s commitment to animals and their protection. Urge your legislator to cosponsor the Better CARE for Animals Act.
Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.