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Animal Welfare

Hero Caged Tiger, Photo by ENRD
Photo by ENRD

Environment and Natural Resources Division lawyers are working to ensure that full effect is given to the federal statutes and enforcement regimes that provide for the humane treatment of captive, farmed, and companion animals across the United States. In 2014 the Department officially designated ENRD as the Main Justice component responsible for coordinating affirmative litigation under the major federal animal welfare statutes, including:

  • The Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131 - 2160
  • The Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition Act, 18 U.S.C. § 49
  • The Horse Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1821- 1831
  • The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 1901- 1907
  • Transportation of Animals, also known as, the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, 49 U.S.C. § 80502
  • The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, formerly known as the Animal Crush Video Statute, 18 U.S.C. § 48

Where appropriate, ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section (ECS) works together with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to bring criminal prosecutions under these laws against those involved in the illegal blood sports of dog and cock fighting, among others. In these cases, the Department works with investigatory agents from the Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other law enforcement agencies. ENRD’s Wildlife and Marine Resources Section (WMRS) brings civil judicial enforcement actions that support administrative enforcement actions taken by the relevant federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. WMRS also pursues civil remedies, such as civil forfeiture, in animal-fighting cases. Additionally, both ECS and WMRS work with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service in cases involving the welfare of captive animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.

ENRD and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices collaborate in animal welfare cases by serving as co-counsel on complex litigations, as well as sharing guidance and best practices. Centralizing the animal welfare coordination within ENRD has enhanced the Department’s enforcement efforts, allowing for more cohesive coordination of federal litigation policies, enforcement policy, and training. 

For an introduction to this practice area, see the September 2015 volume of the Department of Justice Journal of Federal Law and Practice. For information on ENRD’s Wildlife Trafficking work, which complements our Animal Welfare work, please visit our Wildlife and Timber Trafficking page.

To report animal fighting crimes, please contact your local law enforcement or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General’s Hotline or 1-800-424-9121.

We will continue to vigorously enforce animal welfare laws to ensure that animals are provided the humane care that they are legally owed and deserve.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim, (Justice Department Secures the Surrender of Over 4,000 Beagles from Virginia Breeder of Dogs for Research, July 18, 2022)

Addressing Animal Welfare

Read about some of ENRD’s Animal Welfare initiatives below

Through raids and criminal prosecutions, the Department has learned firsthand that certain forms of animal cruelty, such as dog and cockfighting, can be part of a highly organized interstate criminal industry that not only harms animals, but also threatens public safety. Dog and cockfighting ventures frequently attract other criminal activities, including drug trafficking, unlawful possession of firearms, illegal gambling, stolen vehicles and property offenses, and child endangerment. Intervening to address animal cruelty may be key to changing patterns of conduct for positive long-term effects.

The majority of the animal welfare cases prosecuted by the Department involve violations of the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act, enacted in 1976 as an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act. It is a federal crime to exhibit or sponsor an animal in, be a spectator at, or bring a minor under the age of sixteen to an animal fight. It is also a federal crime to possess, purchase, sell, receive, transport, deliver, or train an animal for purposes of participation in an animal fight. This federal prohibition applies to animal fighting ventures that affect interstate commerce. It also prohibits commerce in the blades that cockfighters strap to the legs of roosters, as well as using the mail or other interstate instrumentality to advertise fighting animals or cockfighting knives.

ENRD developed a civil program aimed at filing civil forfeiture actions to acquire title to animals involved in fighting operations. WMRS litigators stand ready to file civil forfeiture actions which can often result in animals being permanently removed from their alleged abusers far more quickly than through the criminal forfeiture process. As a result of the program, numerous dogs from suspected dog fighting operations around the country have been seized and forfeited and have a better chance for good health and a permanent home. The FBI featured this work in an online video. The Division’s efforts, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations and the U.S. Marshals Service have led to the rescue of more than 3,000 dogs from brutal circumstances.

ENRD filed the first ever judicial civil enforcement action for the unlicensed exhibition of animals and placement of the health of animals in serious danger in violation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in United States v. Jeffrey Lowe (E.D. Okla.). The defendants were among the subjects made famous in the Netflix Tiger King documentary. WMRS attorneys successfully obtained a temporary restraining order and two preliminary injunction orders against defendants including orders to relinquish possession of some animals to USDA. The Department obtained two civil seizure warrants and thereafter coordinated and oversaw more than 50 U.S. Marshals, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, and USDA agents and veterinarians in effecting the safe removal of 68 big cats and a jaguar from defendants’ facility. Thereafter, WMRS negotiated the surrender of about 60 remaining animals at the facility and a court order permanently barring the defendants from engaging in AWA-regulated activities.

ENRD filed a judicial civil enforcement action against an Animal Welfare Act-licensed breeding facility in United States v. Envigo RMS (W.D. Va.) following the execution of a multi-day criminal search warrant and the seizure of 446 dogs who were determined to be in acute distress. The defendant bred and sold beagles to research facilities and had already been cited for dozens of violations of the standards for handling, housing, feeding, watering, sanitation, and veterinary care. WMRS attorneys obtained a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction that paved the path for a consent decree under which the defendant company agreed to surrender nearly 4,000 beagles and close its facility. The case garnered extended national attention from the media and Congress, thereby serving as an important message for the regulated community.