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Southern District ruling makes declawing big cats illegal

November 1, 2018

A first-of-its-kind federal order has officially held that the process of declawing large exotic cats is illegal and in a violation of the Endangered Species Act and has prohibited a Charlestown veterinarian from providing any care to such exotic cats.

Indiana Southern District Judge Richard L. Young entered the agreed judgment against Dr. Ricky L. Pelphrey and Mobile Veterinary Services Equine last week in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Mobile Veterinary Services Equine, Inc. and Ricky L. Pelphrey. PETA sued Pelphrey and the veterinary service provider in September, alleging Pelphrey’s practice of declawing lions and tigers violated the Endangered Species Act.

PETA specifically alleged Pelphrey was engaged in the illegal “taking” of the endangered and threatened species when he declawed them because declawing the animals “can cause ongoing pain, discomfort, and other pathological conditions in the animals.” Under the law, “taking” includes acts that “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct” against endangered and threatened species. Tigers and certain breeds of lions are endangered, while other breeds of lions are threatened, meaning they are at risk of becoming endangered.

The suit against Pelphrey and Mobile Veterinary Services Equine traces back to a March 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection conducted to review Timothy L. Stark’s practices. Stark is the owner and operator of Wildlife in Need, a Charlestown roadside zoo that is the subject of ongoing litigation brought by PETA.

Pelphrey provided veterinary services to Wildlife in Need. During the March 2017 USDA inspection, Stark initially hid two tiger cubs from the inspectors, later claiming Pelphrey had “botched” a declawing procedure. A report from the inspection reveals the two cubs were kept in an 18x24 cage, were reluctant to walk and left behind blood whenever their front paws were touching something.

According to PETA’s complaint, the two cubs later died, a result the organization blames on Pelphrey’s “botched” procedure and his failure to prescribe appropriate medication. PETA further alleges that neither Pelphrey nor Stark, who cared for the animals in Pelphrey’s frequent absences, are trained or qualified to care for big cats.

“The American Veterinary Medical Association likewise ‘condemns’ the declawing of Big Cats because the pain and suffering associated with it may be exacerbated in wild feline species, and welfare concerns associated with declawing are heightened for Big Cats,” PETA wrote in its complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. “There is no justification for performing the procedure on Big Cats, except as needed on a per-digit basis as medically necessary, which is exceedingly rare.”

“…Defendants declaw Big Cats for the convenience of Wildlife in Need, rather than for Medical Necessity,” the complaint continues. “The procedures are purely elective.”

Young’s judgment, entered Oct. 23, enjoins Pelphrey and Mobile Veterinary Services Equine from declawing or performing any medical or surgical care to exotic cats – defined as “any lions, tigers, or hybrids thereof, or any other felidae listed as Endangered or Threatened under the ESA.” The judgment also declares that “declawing exotic cats without medical necessity is a violation of the ESA.”

The judgment also says the defendants admitted to performing “medically unnecessary declawing procedures on Exotic Cats possessed by Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc.”

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