On April 14, Everglades Wonder Gardens, a roadside zoo in Bonita Springs, announced that it would close and the property and animals sold. Early the next morning, a local resident, Steven Trew, broke into the zoo, cut the locks on almost every cage and opened perimeter gates. Deer, wild pigs and birds escaped from their cages. Tragically, one deer was killed in a collision with a vehicle on a nearby road. The other animals were recaptured. Trew was arrested on the property and charged with burglary and “animal enterprise disruption.” A zoo employee told the News-Press that Trew, “heard we were closing and he wanted to set the animals free.”

On June 25, Trew pled “no contest” to both counts and was sentenced to time served (he had been held at the Lee County Jail since his arrest), probation, community service and restitution. He was released from jail on July 6.

A special class of crimes

To our knowledge, Trew’s animal enterprise disruption conviction was the first under the Florida Animal Enterprise Protection Act.

The Florida Animal Enterprise Protection Act (828.40 – 43) was passed in 1993. Under the Act, a person who “intentionally causes physical disruption” to an animal enterprise by stealing, damaging or “causing the loss of” animals or other property, and thereby causing “loss of profits” or other economic damage, commits a felony. “Animal enterprise” includes zoos, circuses, research facilities, farms or any other “commercial or academic enterprise that uses animals.”

The Act, passed at the request of biomedical, agriculture and other industries that exploit animals, was modeled after the federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act (the federal law was passed by Congress in 1992 and expanded/replaced in 2006 by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act). At least 27 other states have enacted similar laws.

The laws have been criticized as unnecessary, vague, overly broad, and in violation of free speech and equal protection provisions of both the U.S. and state constitutions. Theft and vandalism were already illegal. The Florida Animal Enterprise Protection Act merely created new crimes targeted specifically at animal activists.

ARFF fears that these laws could discourage entirely lawful activities, such as protests and boycotts, that also threaten corporate profits.

*In April, a felony charge of animal enterprise disruption under the Florida Animal Enterprise Protection Act was dropped against activist Chris Lagergren. Lagergren was arrested in September 2011 for alleged trespassing and criminal mischief at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo. His trial on remaining charges is scheduled to begin in late August. Click here to read more about the case.