The Forest Preserve District of Cook County has settled a lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which sought to obtain Chicago Zoological Society records related to the deaths of 54 stingrays at a special exhibit at Brookfield Zoo in 2015.
While the Forest Preserve District does not admit any wrongdoing by settling the suit, the agreement signed by both parties last month is favorable to PETA, which will receive largely what it had asked for in a 2016 Freedom of Information request it had made seeking documents related to Brookfield Zoo’s Stingray Bay exhibit.
In addition, the settlement agreement calls for the Cook County Forest Preserve District to pay PETA $9,000 for legal fees incurred by the nonprofit to pursue the lawsuit. The Chicago Zoological Society, meanwhile, must certify that it no longer has a business relationship with SeaWorld Entertainment, which provided the stingrays for the exhibit, and has no plans to engage the company in the future.
“SeaWorld’s days of stocking Brookfield Zoo’s touch tanks with sensitive stingrays are over,” says PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Jared Goodman in an email to the Landmark. “This settlement finally allows the public to look at the zoo’s relationship with this controversial company and the mass deaths of animals on loan from it.”
Brookfield Zoo closed Stingray Bay in 2015 abruptly after 54 stingrays died when the exhibit’s life-support system malfunctioned, causing oxygen levels in the water to drop.
Following that incident – 16 stingrays had died during a separate malfunction that increased water temperatures in 2007 – PETA sought Chicago Zoological Society documents through the Cook County Forest Preserve District related to the 2015 incident as well as a copy of the zoo’s animal loan agreement with SeaWorld Entertainment.
The Forest Preserve District owns the land where Brookfield Zoo is located. The Chicago Zoological Society is a nonprofit entity that operates Brookfield Zoo. PETA’s open records request for Chicago Zoological Society documents was rebuffed by the Forest Preserve District, which argued the documents were exempt because the society is not a public body.
In 2018, PETA filed suit against the Forest Preserve District in Cook County Circuit Court seeking a court order to provide the documents it sought and, last September, Judge Anna M. Loftus denied the Forest Preserve District’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The Cook County Forest Preserve District agreed as part of the settlement to provide PETA with the documents it sought in its FOIA within five business days of the fully-executed agreement, which was May 25.
“We just want to see exactly what happened,” Goodman said last September after the judge denied the Forest Preserve District’s motion to dismiss. “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.”
The Cook County Forest Preserve District, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the settlement agreement.