Missouri Primate Foundation Tells PETA to Back Off

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ST. LOUIS – The nonprofit Missouri Primate Foundation claims in court that PETA used a spy to defame it by taking undercover photos and videos of its chimpanzee-housing facilities to try to build a case to take the chimps.

The Primate Foundation, a private nonprofit, seeks exemplary damages for defamation and a restraining order against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Angela Scott, a former “volunteer” at the Primate Foundation.

While posing as a volunteer, Scott, aka Angela G. Cagnasso, of Maryland, “acted as an informer, snitch, agent, and/or representative of PETA,” the foundation says in its federal complaint.

The defendants have threatened to sue the Primate Foundation and its president, claiming their possession of chimpanzees is an illegal “taking,” under the Endangered Species Act.

PETA claims the foundation’s care for the chimps also violates the Endangered Species Act because the chimps are denied complex and sanitary environments and that one chimp named Joey is kept in isolation.

PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement Brittany Peet said in a statement that the chimps are “apparently denied virtually everything that is natural and important to them, including meaningful opportunities to engage in normal behavior, such as roaming, climbing, and swinging. In addition, the facility has repeatedly been cited for failing to clean enclosures and allowing waste to build up and create a harmful ammonia stench, among other violations of federal animal-welfare regulations.”

Peet said that PETA has arranged for placement and transportation to an accredited sanctuary.

“Rather than seeking to prevent PETA from filing a lawsuit to help these animals, the Missouri Primate Foundation should consider their best interests and immediately retire them to an accredited sanctuary that will allow them to lead their own lives as individuals, rather than being warehoused as former photo and party props,” Peet said in the statement.

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal for anyone, with certain exceptions, to “take” endangered fish or wildlife.

The Primate Foundation claims PETA bases its false findings on the “harass” and “harm” elements in the definition of “take” in the Endangered Species Act.

According to the Dec. 30 lawsuit, the Endangered Species Act defines harass as “an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering,” and defines harm as “an act which actually kills or injures wildlife. Such an act may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering.”

The foundation claims PETA’s allegations are not true, and are motivated by the group’s political agenda. It calls PETA “a militant, activist, animal rights group using its cloak as a nonprofit organization to threaten and bring litigation under the Endangered Species Act as the basis for some of its fundraising activities and makes claims for attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (28 U.S.C. 2412) and other similar laws to fund its litigation war chest in furtherance of two of its goals, which are to end private ownership of animals and to have human or non-property rights bestowed upon non-wild, non-human primates, which under applicable law are considered to be private property.”

Scott “acted under false pretenses to gain access to the facilities of the Missouri Primate Foundation to take videos, photographs and/or to obtain certain information for PETA’s” threatened lawsuit, the foundation says.

It cares for at least 16 chimpanzees, who are named in the complaint. It seeks declaratory judgment that its care for the chimps is not a “taking” under the ESA, an injunction against the threatened lawsuit, exemplary damages for defamation, and costs of suit.

The Missouri Primate Foundation is represented by Kurtis Reeg with Goldberg Segalla.

An internet search for the Missouri Primate Foundation on Thursday morning was dominated by websites attacking the group.