The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) earlier this month filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court to force the Cook County Forest Preserve District to turn over records related to the deaths of 54 stingrays at a Brookfield Zoo exhibit in 2015.

According to the suit, which was filed in the circuit court’s Chancery Division on July 9, PETA has been attempting to get records related to the stingray exhibit, without success, since the fall of 2016.

In filing the lawsuit, PETA claimed that the failure to turn over the documents constituted a “cover-up” on the part of Brookfield Zoo to shield its partner in the stingray exhibit, SeaWorld.

“SeaWorld has a long history of premature animal deaths at its amusement parks and refused to release necropsy reports for the three orcas who died at its parks last year,” PETA stated in a press release issued after it filed the lawsuit.

Brookfield Zoo on July 19 responded to the lawsuit, calling the allegations of a cover-up “false and hurtful,” and saying that it refused to turn over documents to PETA because it wanted the zoo’s records as ammunition for the organization’s “ongoing advocacy against SeaWorld.”

“While the Chicago Zoological Society will continue to strive for transparency in its operations, it cannot allow PETA to inappropriately use our private, not-for-profit institution for this political advocacy agenda,” the Chicago Zoological Society responded in its statement.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office concluded in February that the forest preserve district had to turn over the records related to the exhibit, the lawsuit states, but the district still has refused to do so. Brookfield Zoo in its statement said that the attorney general’s opinion was non-binding.

In response to a November 2016 Freedom of Information request from PETA, the forest preserve district initially had refused to turn over any zoo records concerning the stingray exhibit, according to the lawsuit.

At the time, the forest preserve district stated it did not have any involvement with Brookfield Zoo or the Chicago Zoological Society, which was created in 1921 to operate the zoo on forest preserve district land. 

The forest preserve district also argued at the time that operating exhibits “does not involve a government function under purview of the district.”

PETA subsequently sought an opinion from the Illinois Attorney General on the forest preserve district’s response and ruled in February that the Cook County Forest Preserve District Act “specifically authorizes the district to maintain a zoo” and as such “has contracted with the Zoological Society to perform a government function” whose records are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“We’re a bit surprised,” said Jared Goodman, deputy general counsel for animal law for the PETA Foundation in a phone interview with the Landmark. “Between the fact that the Chicago Zoological Society is exercising a government function and the attorney general agreed with us, you have to wonder what the zoo is looking to keep from the public.”

Before seeking records from the Cook County Forest Preserve District, PETA originally had sought them directly from Brookfield Zoo, according to the statement from the zoo. 

When the zoo balked, PETA sought an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office, which concluded the zoo did not have to turn over the records because the Chicago Zoological Society was not a public body.

After that ruling, PETA apparently switched its strategy and sought to get the records through the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

In response to an email from the Landmark seeking a response to the lawsuit, Cook County Forest Preserve District spokeswoman Stacina Stagner directed questions to the Chicago Zoological Society.

“The Forest Preserves does not have any of the responsive documents, as we previously advised PETA,” Stagner wrote in an email. “Brookfield Zoo is run by a non-profit agency that receives the overwhelming majority of its funding from private donations.”

The lawsuit, however, argues that the Chicago Zoological Society operates the zoo on the forest preserve district’s behalf. As a result, the lawsuit contends, the zoo’s records are public records.

“The forest preserve district can’t simply wash their hands of it,” Goodman said.

PETA is not sure what the documents related to the stingray exhibit might tell them. In 2015, the zoo issued a statement that an exhibit life-support system malfunction had caused oxygen levels in the habitat to drop, killing the stingrays.

At the time, the zoo said it would analyze the system to see what caused the malfunction. According to the lawsuit, however, zoo officials never publicly disclosed what their analysis discovered.

“The public has a right to know how the government and their contractor are responding to these issues,” Goodman said.

The Stingray Bay exhibit at Brookfield Zoo closed for good after the 2015 incident, but it wasn’t the first time fish had died due to an exhibit malfunction. 

Stingray Bay opened at the zoo in the spring of 2007. In July 2008, a reported increase in water temperature killed 16 stingrays in the habitat.

The exhibit continued to operate each summer after that incident. In 2014, the zoo reported that Stingray Bay had been its most popular summer attraction, drawing 211,000 visitors.