MONTEREY (CBS SF) — The People For Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Monterey Zoo, accusing it of using disciplinary tools that are banned in the state.

The suit accuses the zoo, which opened 1994, of having its trainers use illegal prods as well as bullhooks and canes to discipline the elephants, all of which is prohibited in California.

At the center of the controversy is the zoo’s use of circus-style, free contact training, where trainers stay in the same space as the elephant to train them. Trainers end up using force and disciplinary tools on the elephants with this method, according to PETA’s suit. 

PETA also blames the method of training for a zookeeper being trampled by an elephant and breaking his back in June of 2018. According to an OSHA report filed after the incident, the elephant stepped on the zookeeper’s foot and thrashed him after he became aggressive with the animal during an event. OSHA cited the zoo for the incident.

“Even following this incident, Defendants continue to use canes to control the remaining elephants confined at Monterey Zoo,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit extends an ongoing battle between the Monterey Zoo and PETA that began in 2019, after the death of two elephants at the zoo. Kristy, 48, and Paula, 52, died within months of each other. Autopsies conducted by a veterinarian at UC Davis concluded they died of poor care. PETA sent those autopsies to the media, drawing negative attention to the zoo.

The reports showed “that one elephant’s intestinal tissue was rotting away and another was likely unable to move without agony,” PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Rachel Mathews wrote in an accompanying press release. 

Monterey Zoo owner and founder Charlie Sammut disagreed with the autopsies, saying the elephants were rescued from a circus a decade before that had been abusing them. He insists that the ailments that led to the elephants’ demise are common. In an interview with The Californian, Sammut described PETA’s actions as “domestic terrorism.”

A retired police officer, Sammut started a wildlife preserve in 1994 called Vision Quest Ranch. The 51-acre ranch, sitting between Monterey and Salinas, hosted over 100 exotic animals that Sammut collected over the years, which he loaned to movie productions. One of his lions was used as a model for “the Lion King.” 

Over time, Sammut changed its name to the Monterey Zoo. By 2016, animal rights groups were criticizing the facility and it was added to the “Worst Zoos for Elephants” list that’s maintained by the non-profit In Defense Of Animals.

Like Joe Exotic from the Netflix show “Tiger King,” Sammut is not a trained zoologist. But after the 2018 attack on his zookeeper, Sammut upgraded the facility from an open-air ranch to a zoo. He also had agents from both OSHA and California Fish and Wildlife visit and inspect the zoo. Sammut said the inspections “exonerated” his facility.

Only two elephants remain at the zoo — Butch and Buffy — and only one of them is handled with free-contact. 

Free-contact training is not illegal in California, though most zoos in the state voluntarily dropped using the method.

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