Veterinarian Admits to Declawing Lions, Tigers in Lawsuit Settlement

At least 12 big cats under the care of a veterinarian at an Indiana roadside zoo had been illegally declawed.
Amanda Carrozza
Published: October 24, 2018
An Indiana veterinarian has admitted to declawing lions and tigers at Wildlife in Need, a roadside zoo in Charlestown. According to lawsuit documents filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against Rick L. Pelphrey, DVM, since 2015, approximately 12 big cats at the zoo were declawed without any pain medication.

On Tuesday, PETA announced that it had reached a settlement in the case and that Dr. Pelphrey was barred from declawing or administering veterinary care to any endangered or threatened species of big or exotic cats. According to the group’s press release, the federal court order creates a precedent that declawing endangered or threatened exotic cats without medical necessity violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"Dr. Pelphrey had no specialized training to care for big cats, and animals were left bleeding and in pain from his unnecessary and illegal amputations," said Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement. "PETA's settlement will spare other big and exotic cats a similar fate and make it harder for Wildlife in Need to find any veterinarian willing to declaw lions, tigers, and hybrids illegally for its cruel photo op stunts."

PETA’s lawsuit is not the first time the zoo has been cited for declawing its big cats. A March 2017 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that at least 20 wild/exotic felines on the zoo’s property had been declawed. This included lion and tiger cubs, bobcats, lynx, and adult tigers. The report goes on to detail that 2 of the cats suffered severe complications following the declawing, which resulted in their deaths. Beyond the instances of declawed cats, the USDA’s 8-page report also indicates inadequate shelter for the zoo’s bears and wolves, no signs of enrichment for the primates on the premises, unreported tigers, and a coatimundi that was missing part of its tail. 

In addition to the settlement reached with Dr. Pelphrey,  PETA has filed a lawsuit against Wildlife in Need and its owners for alleged violations of the ESA. While the lawsuit is ongoing, in February the advocacy group won a preliminary injunction under the act that stopped the zoo from declawing its big cats. Wildlife in Need was also forced to stop separating them prematurely from their mothers and using them in "Tiger Baby Playtime" events, in which cubs have allegedly been handled roughly, hit, and dragged.

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