Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: Animal Law and Policy Clinic

Right to farm: Indiana families ask U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on case over factory farm

via IndyStar
by Sarah Bowman

This livestock operation is west and slightly south of Richard Himsel’s property, on Country Road 425 West in Hendricks County. Himself lives on the farm his family has owned near Danville since 1940. Himsel has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s Right to Farm laws. Doug McSchooler/For The Star

A local environmental group believes that Indiana’s Right to Farm Act violates the federal constitution, and they are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

The Hoosier Environmental Council has teamed up with a Harvard Law School Clinic and together they filed a petition with the nation’s highest court on July 17 asking it to review the case. This petition comes nearly 5 years after this case first began in an Indiana trial court, and roughly 7 years after an 8,000-hog factory farm moved in next to two Hendricks County couples and allegedly began causing harm.

The issue at hand: Whether Indiana’s Right to Farm statute provides complete immunity for nuisance and trespass liability to factory farms, and in doing so, violates the Takings Clause of the Constitution. That clause says that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.

“What we have here is a law that doesn’t make sense; it’s crazy,” said Kim Ferraro, senior staff attorney for HEC and the plaintiff’s counsel. “I maintain a very strong belief that the law and facts are on our side and our clients’ side, and that the lower courts got it wrong.”

The counsel for the defendants, the owners and operators of the concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO, said they are still reviewing the petition and evaluating their options.

“The Plaintiffs’ needless filing of the petition places an undue burden on our judicial system and the Defendants,” said Chris Braun of Indianapolis-firm Plews Shadley Racher & Braun.

“Despite fully complying with the law in properly operating the farm facility, and winning on all counts in three different Indiana courts,” he added, “the Defendants find themselves being forced to continue spending considerable time and expense defending themselves against the Plaintiffs’ unsupported claims.”

Born there, retired there

Richard Himsel, 79, was born and raised in the Danville house where he now lives with his wife, Janet. All growing up, his house was surrounded by crop land and the occasional traditional livestock farm.

It’s the same house in which they began and planned to live out their retirement.

But in 2013, two barns housing thousands of hogs began operating just about a quarter mile from the edge of his property and his home. And underneath them are the large tanks that hold thousands of gallons of waste the animals produce.

The odors that waft from the barns often make being at the house unbearable, according to Richard Himsel. The emissions sting his eyes and throat. His wife regularly doesn’t stay at the house, he said, based on her doctor’s recommendation. His children and grandchildren don’t like to visit the house.

Richard Himsel lives on the farm his family has owned in Danville, Ind., Since 1940. Himsel has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s Right to Farm laws. He says the presence of an industrial-sized hog farm adjacent to his property has diminished the quality of his life. Due to the odor, his wife no longer lives on the property. Doug MsSchooler / For The Star

But he couldn’t sell his house even if he wanted, Himsel said. An appraisal found that the property value of his home has dropped by nearly 60%. No one wants to move next to a factory farm, he said.

The Lannons are facing similar issues. Robert and Susan Lannon bought their land, just a quarter mile from the Himsels and half mile from the hog concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, in 1971 and similarly planned to retire there. Their property value has dropped by nearly 50%, according to the appraisal.

Together the Himsels and Lannons filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the CAFO farmers. The defendants include Samual, Cory and Clinton Himsel — Richard’s cousin and two nephews — their company 4/9 Livestock, LLC, and Co-Alliance, a large agriculture supply company.

That first lawsuit alleged that the CAFO diminished their quality of life and reduced their property values. In other words, it constitutes a nuisance and a trespass, Ferraro claims. But the law has left them no remedy or recourse, she added.

No remedy or recourse

Right-to-farm laws started to grow in prominence around the nation in the 1970s and 1980s, and Indiana’s was enacted in 1981. These laws were enacted as a way to protect existing farmers from urban sprawl as city-dwellers moved to the countryside unprepared for the smells of agriculture. Such newcomers could not sue for nuisance as they moved to or “came to the nuisance,” said Andy Stawasz, a Harvard Law student who worked on the petition to the Supreme Court.

That protection disappeared, however, if there was a significant change on the farm — such as to its size, the hours of operation, technology used, etc. In those situations, a neighbor could file a nuisance claim.

Richard Himsel’s view of the neighboring hog operation can be seen from the second floor of his home, over the top of the crop of corn. Himsel, 74, has lived on or near the farm his family has had since 1940 in Danville, Ind. Himself has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s Right to Farm laws. He says the presence of the industrialized hog farm adjacent to his property, 1,600 yards from his home, has diminished the quality of his life. Due to the odor, his wife no longer lives on the property. Doug McSchooler / For The Star

Right to farm: Indiana families ask U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on case over factory farm

Sarah Bowman

Indianapolis Star

A local environmental group believes that Indiana’s Right to Farm Act violates the federal constitution, and they are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

The Hoosier Environmental Council has teamed up with a Harvard Law School Clinic and together they filed a petition with the nation’s highest court on July 17 asking it to review the case. This petition comes nearly 5 years after this case first began in an Indiana trial court, and roughly 7 years after an 8,000-hog factory farm moved in next to two Hendricks County couples and allegedly began causing harm.

The issue at hand: Whether Indiana’s Right to Farm statute provides complete immunity for nuisance and trespass liability to factory farms, and in doing so, violates the Takings Clause of the Constitution. That clause says that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.

“What we have here is a law that doesn’t make sense; it’s crazy,” said Kim Ferraro, senior staff attorney for HEC and the plaintiff’s counsel. “I maintain a very strong belief that the law and facts are on our side and our clients’ side, and that the lower courts got it wrong.”

This livestock operation is west and slightly south of Richard Himsel's property, on County Road 425 West in Hendricks County. Himsel lives on the farm his family has owned near Danville since 1940. Himsel has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's Right to Farm laws.

The counsel for the defendants, the owners and operators of the concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO, said they are still reviewing the petition and evaluating their options.

“The Plaintiffs’ needless filing of the petition places an undue burden on our judicial system and the Defendants,” said Chris Braun of Indianapolis-firm Plews Shadley Racher & Braun.

“Despite fully complying with the law in properly operating the farm facility, and winning on all counts in three different Indiana courts,” he added, “the Defendants find themselves being forced to continue spending considerable time and expense defending themselves against the Plaintiffs’ unsupported claims.”

Born there, retired there

Richard Himsel, 79, was born and raised in the Danville house where he now lives with his wife, Janet. All growing up, his house was surrounded by crop land and the occasional traditional livestock farm.

It’s the same house in which they began and planned to live out their retirement.

But in 2013, two barns housing thousands of hogs began operating just about a quarter mile from the edge of his property and his home. And underneath them are the large tanks that hold thousands of gallons of waste the animals produce.

The odors that waft from the barns often make being at the house unbearable, according to Richard Himsel. The emissions sting his eyes and throat. His wife regularly doesn’t stay at the house, he said, based on her doctor’s recommendation. His children and grandchildren don’t like to visit the house.

Richard Himsel lives on the farm his family has owned in Danville, Ind., since 1940. Himsel has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's Right to Farm laws. He says the presence of an industrial-sized hog farm adjacent to his property has diminished the quality of his life. Due to the odor, his wife no longer lives on the property.

But he couldn’t sell his house even if he wanted, Himsel said. An appraisal found that the property value of his home has dropped by nearly 60%. No one wants to move next to a factory farm, he said.

The Lannons are facing similar issues. Robert and Susan Lannon bought their land, just a quarter mile from the Himsels and half mile from the hog concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, in 1971 and similarly planned to retire there. Their property value has dropped by nearly 50%, according to the appraisal.

Together the Himsels and Lannons filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the CAFO farmers. The defendants include Samual, Cory and Clinton Himsel — Richard’s cousin and two nephews — their company 4/9 Livestock, LLC, and Co-Alliance, a large agriculture supply company.

That first lawsuit alleged that the CAFO diminished their quality of life and reduced their property values. In other words, it constitutes a nuisance and a trespass, Ferraro claims. But the law has left them no remedy or recourse, she added.

No remedy or recourse

Right-to-farm laws started to grow in prominence around the nation in the 1970s and 1980s, and Indiana’s was enacted in 1981. These laws were enacted as a way to protect existing farmers from urban sprawl as city-dwellers moved to the countryside unprepared for the smells of agriculture. Such newcomers could not sue for nuisance as they moved to or “came to the nuisance,” said Andy Stawasz, a Harvard Law student who worked on the petition to the Supreme Court.

That protection disappeared, however, if there was a significant change on the farm — such as to its size, the hours of operation, technology used, etc. In those situations, a neighbor could file a nuisance claim.

Richard Himsel's view of the neighboring hog operation can been seen from the second floor of his home, over the top of the crop of corn. Himsel, 74, has lived on or near the farm his family has had since 1940 in Danville, Ind. Himsel has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's Right to Farm laws. He says the presence of the industrial-sized hog farm adjacent to his property, 1,600 yards from his home, has diminished the quality of his life. Due to the odor, his wife no longer lives on the property.

But in 2005, Indiana’s statute was amended to eliminate those remedies, according to the petition. As a result of the amendment, a “significant change” no longer includes the conversion of one type of agricultural operation to another, use of a new technology or a change in the farm’s size.

“In other words, no matter how large, damaging, or odious the transformed operation may be, injured landowners who were there first no longer have any nuisance remedy,” the petition reads.

Prior to starting the CAFO, the land did undergo a change: In 2013 it was rezoned from “agriculture residential” to ”agriculture intense.” And prior to the 2005 amendment, Katherine Meyer feels confident that this change would have been grounds for nuisance claims under the law.

“It would have been cut and dry because they were there first and then the nuisance came in,” said Meyer, the executive director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic that worked on the petition with Ferraro. “Now they can’t sue for damages and they can’t get the value out of their house. It just doesn’t seem fair, let alone the legal and constitutional issues.”

This case has moved its way through Indiana’s court system.

First, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment before suddenly reversing that opinion. The Indiana Court of Appeals then affirmed that the 2005 amendment bars all of the Himsel’s and Lannons’ claims because the switch from crops to a CAFO no longer constitutes a “significant change.”

In the Appeals Court’s decision, it acknowledged that “it is difficult to imagine what would constitute a significant change” and went on to say that the “coming to the nuisance doctrine, as applied by the [Right to Farm Act], now encompasses coming to the potential future nuisance.”

“Even articulating that is mind-boggling because how do you come to a future nuisance?” Meyer said. “Even the words don’t make sense. You can’t come to something that doesn’t exist yet.”

Ferraro then petitioned to have this case transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court. Following oral arguments, the court denied the transfer — the equivalent of accepting the case — in a split 3-2 decision. That allowed the Appeals Court opinion to stand.

Kim Ferraro, a senior attorney at the Hoosier Environmental Council, makes her case to the Indiana Supreme Court regarding Indiana’s Right to Farm Act, at the Indiana Statehouse, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. Some homeowners have alleged an 8,000-hog factory farm next to their property has diminished their quality of life, and are challenging Indiana’s Right to Farm laws, arguing that they unfairly protect large corporate-owned farms. Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar

“The Plaintiffs and their counsel refuse to accept the sound, well-reasoned decisions of an Indiana trial court, the Indiana Court of Appeals and the Indiana Supreme Court that have each considered and rejected the Plaintiffs’ unsupported claims,” Braun said to IndyStar.

But Ferraro took the state Supreme Court decision differently.

“The split decision told us we presented a meritorious case,” she said. “It didn’t signal to me that we got things wrong, signaled to me that there is a larger issue here.”

Role of the U.S. Supreme Court

Because the state Supreme Court did not grant transfer, that solidified the Appeals Court decision in how the law is to be interpreted. That no longer is up for debate, Ferraro said, as it was in the lower courts.

The question now, she said, is if the law — interpreted in the way that no longer allows for significant changes and removes any remedy for those changes — is a violation of the federal constitution.

Ferraro, her clients and the Harvard Clinic believe it is.

Any property owner has the right to reasonably use and enjoy one’s land, Stawasz said.

“The takings clause in the Federal Constitution says that if the government takes that away, it needs to pay you for that or it shouldn’t do that,” he said. “Seems in that sense a pretty clear violation of the Constitution not to compensate those homeowners at the very least.”

The petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court is less about the merits of the case and more about why the highest court should take it on. Ferraro believes it is worthy of review because Indiana’s law now stands in stark contrast to Supreme Court jurisprudence or precedent on the Takings Clause, she said.

But beyond Indiana, these types of amendments are a growing trend among states, Ferraro added. There is divergent treatment on this issue across states and whether nuisance or trespass authorized by the government is a taking.

“The Court needs to provide some clarity to ensure that more people’s property isn’t unjustly taken,” she said.

Richard Himsel notes that many of the farms adjacent to his property are all family.  lives on the farm his family has had since 1940 in Danville, Ind. Himself has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's Right to Farm laws. He says the presence of the industrial-sized hog farm adjacent to his property, 1,600 yards from his home, has diminished the quality of his life. Due to the odor, his wife no longer lives on the property.

Richard Himsel notes that many of the farms adjacent to his property are all family. He lives on the farm his family has had since 1940 in Danville, In. Himsel has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s Right to Farm laws. He says the presence of the industrial-sized hog farm adjacent to his property, 1,600 yards from his home, has diminished the quality of his life. Due to the odor, his wife no longer lives on the property. Doug McSchooler/For The Star

The Court is asked to review more than 7,000 cases each year, and it usually accepts only about 100 to 150, according to the Supreme Court procedures.

Ferraro and Meyer know it is a long shot, but they said it is a shot worth taking. And one they feel is important to protect the rights of rural residents not just in Indiana but across the country.

Braun said that neither the petition nor this case “appears to qualify as a viable candidate for the Supreme Court.” He added: “Consequently, we anticipate that the Plaintiffs and their counsel will lose, again, for the fourth time in this unnecessary and protracted lawsuit.”

The Supreme Court is in recess until October, and a decision on whether the case will be accepted likely will not come until the fall.

Animal rights advocates sue federal government over treatment of research primates

by David Abel

via The Boston Globe

Monkeys at Harvard’s former New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. Between 2010 and 2012, four monkeys died at the facility.GLOBE STAFF PHOTO

In the wake of regulators formally rejecting a petition to improve the conditions of non-human primates used in federally funded research studies, a group of local animal rights advocates has sued the US Department of Agriculture, saying the agency refuses to raise standards for the animals.

Six years ago, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and other groups called on regulators to create better conditions for some 106,000 non-human primates held in captivity.

The government didn’t respond to their petition until last fall, after Harvard’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed a lawsuit demanding a response to their allegations, which include the government’s failure to ensure adequate living conditions for rhesus macaques, baboons, marmosets, and other primates.

In the latest lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Maryland, the animal rights groups called the agency’s rejection of their 2014 petition “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law,” noting that the existing standards were written in 1991, when less was known about the psychological needs of the primates.

“If these primates are going to continue to be used in the thousands for the benefit of humans, they at least deserve to be treated as humanely as possible while waiting to be experimented on, during the experiments, and while recuperating,” said Katherine Meyer, the clinic’s director.

USDA officials said the agency does not comment on litigation.

In a letter sent to the plaintiffs late last year, USDA officials disputed some of the allegations and said existing regulations are sufficient.

“Each case of distress is unique, specifying one approach to manage such cases would be ineffective,” wrote Betty Goldentyer, the agency’s acting deputy administrator of animal care, in response to one of many requested policy changes from the petitioners.

In Massachusetts, primates had been held in 15 USDA-licensed facilities, including ones at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, Boston University, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Charles River Laboratories, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The plaintiffs submitted their petition to the USDA a year after the National Institutes of Health adopted standards to protect the psychological well-being of chimpanzees used in federally funded research.

Animal rights groups have urged the federal government to recognize that the primates require environmental enrichment, such as living in social groups, access to the outdoors, and opportunities to forage for food, climb, build nests, and make choices about their activities.

Many institutions have failed to allow such enrichment, the groups said. Between 2010 and 2012, for example, four monkeys died at Harvard’s former New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. The university was fined $24,000 by federal regulators.

After the deaths became public, the Globe reported that a dozen monkeys between 1999 and 2011 had been found dehydrated and dead in their cages or had been euthanized for poor health.

The lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the Animal Legal Defense Fund of California, contends that the government has a duty to improve research primates’ living conditions, saying they share many cognitive abilities and needs with humans. Like humans, the primates exhibit complex emotions, develop relationships, and require mental stimulation.

“The current regulations allow research labs to make their own rules,” said Brett Richey, a Harvard Law student who helped draft the lawsuit. “The lives of non-human primates who think, feel, care, regret, imagine, and invent, just like us, are on the line. We cannot ignore their suffering any longer.”

Animal Law & Policy Program files amicus brief in Supreme Court challenging border wall

via Harvard Law Today

Photo of the front entrance of Langdell Library

The Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on Thursday. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

In early March, Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic filed its first Supreme Court amicus brief  in support of a petition for certiorari by the Center for Biological Diversity. The brief challenged the Trump administration’s waiver of all environmental and other laws in connection with the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The clinic represents as amici curiae the North American Butterfly Association and National Butterfly Center, which operate an important wildlife refuge in the area where the wall is to be built.

The brief argues that construction of the wall without compliance with any of the environmental laws (which include the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act) that would normally apply to such a massive project will have devastating and irreparable impacts on dozens of imperiled species of butterflies, moths, and many other species that rely on this habitat for survival, and it will also destroy a unique, rare, and fragile ecosystem that is already under siege by development and other human encroachments.

The brief was drafted by clinic student Ashley Maiolatesi ’20 and clinical fellow Kate Barnekow ’19Maiolatesi recently corresponded by email with Harvard Law Today about what is at stake, the specific ramifications of these waivers, and her own personal connection to the project.


Harvard Law Today: What is at issue here?

Ashley Maiolatesi: The amicus brief aims to illuminate the struggle that animals, many endangered and unique to the area, will face if the border wall proceeds as planned. Over 40 federal laws, in addition to many state and tribal laws, were waived in order to expedite the building process—that means that there was absolutely no consideration of the impending environmental impacts the border wall will cause. Additionally, there was no consideration of less harmful alternatives or mitigation measures that would have helped to minimize the border wall’s environmental toll.

HLT: In your brief, you write that this wall will be far more harmful than any existing barriers. Can you talk about the ways this structure would be particularly harmful to butterflies and the other animal and plant species that inhabit the area?

Maiolatesi: The border wall as proposed will be a solid structure made from concrete and steel, as opposed to fencing that would allow smaller species to move from one side of the wall to the other. Additionally, the proposed wall will include stadium lighting 24 hours a day/7 days a week, which has been shown to interrupt the migration and breeding patterns of many different pollinators and insects that many in the Rio Grande Valley depend on. Further, the proposed wall will have a much wider “enforcement zone,” which is essentially a clear cut area where pesticides are sprayed and which is patrolled by vehicles traveling at high speeds. All of these factors pose incredible challenges to animals, butterflies, and insects living in the Rio Grande Valley.

HLT: The secretary of Homeland Security has waived federal, state, local and tribal laws to allow the proposed Border Wall to be built quickly. Can you give an example of the types of laws that have been waived and why that’s significant?

Maiolatesi: One of the most impactful laws in this case would have been the National Environmental Protection Act, which requires an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement of the proposed government project. In the assessment, the government is required to consider both less harmful alternatives and possible mitigation measures. Because no assessment was ever performed, we have no way of knowing how truly damaging the wall as proposed will be, or how small changes could have greatly helped the ecology of the surrounding area.

HLT: How did you get involved with this clinic and why is this issue important to you?

Maiolatesi: It is my second semester as a student in Harvard’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic and I was thrilled when our Clinic’s Director, Professor Kathy Meyer, asked me to work on the project as I am from the South and care deeply about the impacts that the proposed border wall will have there. When considering a border wall, environmental and animal issues are not normally the first issues that come to mind, and it was great to be able to bring these issues to light.

Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic Fight Against Border Wall in Amicus Brief

via The Harvard Crimson

by Kelsey J. Griffin

Photo of the front entrance of Langdell Library

The Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on Thursday. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

The Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on Thursday supporting a Center for Biological Diversity-led challenge to the Trump administration’s wall along the Mexico-United States border.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition for certiorari on Jan. 31, asking the Supreme Court to review six decisions by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which allowed the Trump administration to waive over 40 federal laws that would slow down the construction of a border wall.

The Law School clinic represents the North American Butterfly Association and the National Butterfly Center — who manage a refuge along the border — as amici curiae in the case. Their brief claims the waivers DHS approved subvert laws that protect endangered species such as butterflies and moths.

“This includes irreparably harming dozens of rare animal and plant species that inhabit the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and forever destroying the already extremely fragile ecosystems on which they depend,” the brief reads.

Law Student Ashley Maiolatesi said the proposed border wall will differ from the barriers previously in place and could harm animals living in the area.

“It’s going to be made of steel and metal and be completely solid, and it’s going to have stadium lighting around the top and so that affects a lot of animals in their migration patterns and how they breed and travel and all sorts of things like that,” Maiolatesi said in an interview.

“Anything that is like a terrestrial animal — like the endangered ocelot that lives in that area — it can’t obviously get past this 36-foot high wall,” she added. “That is a huge issue because these animals are already so endangered.”

Maiolatesi also said constructing the wall would necessitate clearing land on either side of the border. The amicus brief describes the proposal for this 150-feet-wide clear-cut area as an “enforcement 10 zone” and claims it would destroy an estimated 20 miles of habitat for each mile of the wall built.

“That eliminates over 13,000 acres of viable habitat along the Rio Grande Valley right now,” she said.

The brief mentions additional concerns about the proposed wall, including the lack of a sloped escape route for animals in the case of fire or flood and an increase in danger, pollution, and erosion due to high-speed patrol vehicles.

Maiolatesi said the Law School clinic hopes to raise awareness about the alleged lack of research into the potential consequences of the proposed wall.

“None of the environmental assessments or any paperwork was filed on what these ramifications would be if these changes to the law were made,” she said. “We wanted to really bring to light the animal aspects, and how this was going to be affecting animals in the area throughout the United States and Mexico.”

Animal welfare groups sue government over treatment of research primates

Via Boston Globe

By David Abel

Five years ago, animal rights advocates called on federal regulators to improve the conditions of non-human primates used in federally funded research studies.

The government still hasn’t responded to their petition, and now a Harvard Law School program, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, and other animal welfare groups have sued the US Department of Agriculture, alleging that the agency has failed to ensure adequate living conditions for primates, including rhesus macaques, baboons, and marmosets.

“We are bringing this case to compel the USDA to put in place clear, enforceable laws that will ease the burden of suffering on non-human primates, some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom,” said Brett Richey, a Harvard Law School student who helped file the lawsuit on behalf of the school’s new Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “These animals deserve our protection.”

Officials at the USDA said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

There were nearly 106,000 non-human primates held in captivity last year for experiments, according to the complaint, which was filed Wednesday in US District Court in Boston.

In Massachusetts, primates were held in 15 USDA-licensed facilities, including ones at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, Boston University, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Charles River Laboratories, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The plaintiffs submitted their petition to the USDA a year after the National Institutes of Health adopted standards in 2013 to protect the psychological well-being of chimpanzees used in federally funded research.

Animal rights groups have urged the federal government to recognize that the primates require environmental enrichment, such as being able to live in social groups, have access to the outdoors, and have opportunities to forage for food, climb, build nests, and make choices about their activities.

“There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating the psychological capabilities and needs of primates,” said Nathan Herschler, executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, a Boston-based advocacy group that has called for a ban on using animals for research.

Many institutions have failed to allow such enrichment, the groups said. Between 2010 and 2012, for example, four monkeys died at Harvard’s former New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. The university was fined $24,000 by federal regulators.

After the deaths became public, the Globe reported that a dozen monkeys between 1999 and 2011 had been found dehydrated and dead in their cages, or had been euthanized for poor health.

The complaint, filed in conjunction with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the International Primate Protection League, contends that the government has a duty to improve primates’ living conditions, saying they share many cognitive abilities and needs with humans. Like humans, the primates exhibit complex emotions, develop relationships, and require mental stimulation.

“The USDA’s failure to implement appropriate standards protecting primates’ psychological well-being is causing animals to suffer in isolation and without adequate enrichment,” said Christopher Berry, a senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based advocacy group.

Primates living in confined conditions often develop pathological behaviors and suffer severe stress. Behaviors include biting themselves, repetitive circling, grooming to the point of damaging their skin, and other forms of self-harm.

Severe stress can have a negative impact on the validity of the research, the plaintiffs said.

The complaint also accused the agency of violating rules that require it to respond to formal petitions within a reasonable period and asked the court to compel the agency to respond.

“We have waited far too long for the USDA. . . to upgrade these minimum standards,” said Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “These primates, who have been used in research to help us, deserve to be treated as humanely as possible.”