A Cook County judge has ruled that Chicago Zoological Society documents related to a 2015 exhibit where 54 stingrays died due to an equipment malfunction are public records and subject to a Freedom of Information request from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

On Sept. 21, Judge Anna M. Loftus denied a motion by the Cook County Forest Preserve District to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in 2018 to force the district to turn over documents related to Brookfield Zoo’s 2015 Stingray Bay exhibit and its contract with Sea World, which provided the fish for the exhibit.

While the ruling does not specifically order the documents to be turned over, the judge’s opinion makes clear such an order would be appropriate. Loftus has given the forest preserve district a month to answer the ruling. The next court date has been scheduled for Oct. 29.

“This decision solves the primary question in the case,” said Jared Goodman, deputy general counsel for the PETA Foundation. “Now the question is when or in what manner we’ll be getting the records.”

That question would appear to remain an open one. In response to an inquiry from the Landmark, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Forest Preserve District indicated the agency would object to the judge’s determination.

“The Forest Preserves of Cook County will continue to forge a path in this case to distinguish the difference between public records of a government agency freely available for public dissemination and private records of a private, not-for-profit entity such as the Chicago Zoological Society,” said Stacina Stagner, communications manager for the Cook County Forest Preserve District in an email.

In 2015, Brookfield Zoo abruptly closed the Stingray Bay exhibit after its life-support system malfunctioned, causing oxygen levels in the water to drop, killing 54 stingrays.

The incident marked the second time stingrays had died while on exhibit at Stingray Bay. In 2007, 16 of the fish died due to an increase in water temperature.

Goodman said he did not know what the Chicago Zoological society’s documents will tell them about the stingray deaths.

“We’d just like to see exactly what happened,” Goodman said. It’s information of intense public interest and we need to ensure the public is able to see what happened or whether Brookfield Zoo should be allowed to maintain animals like this at all in the future.”

Initially, PETA tried to obtain the documents from the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, but was rebuffed due to the fact that the society is not a public body.

PETA then sought to obtain the documents through a Freedom of Information request to the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which owns the land where Brookfield Zoo is located.

The Forest Preserves produced some documents, but none relating to the exhibit, which it said it did not possess and belonged to a private agency. The district claimed the operating zoo exhibits “does not involve a government function under the purview of the district.”

PETA appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor, which issued a non-binding opinion that the records were, in fact, FOIA-eligible since the Forest Preserve District Act “specifically authorizes the district to maintain a zoo” and “has contracted with the Zoological Society to perform a government function.”

Judge Loftus’s opinion denying the forest preserve district’s motion to dismiss upheld PETA’s arguments. An amendment to the state’s FOIA law in 2010 extended its reach by specifically adding language to address situations where a public body has outsourced a governmental function.

And a 2019 Illinois Supreme Court ruling, said Loftus, made even more explicit the law’s intention “to avoid allowing governmental entities to avoid disclosure obligations by contractually delegating their responsibilities to a private entity.”

“[The ruling] is the only way it could have gone down,” said Goodman. “It seems like the district’s argument would essentially gut the entire purpose of the legislation.”