An investigation by the Agriculture Department has found that federal animal welfare officials in the Eastern United States are more lax in punishing zoos and other facilities when people or animals are endangered.

In one case, the government failed to act against a zoo -- with a history of violations -- where a child was hurt by a jaguar after scaling an exhibit fence that was too low. In another, no action was taken against an unlicensed exhibitor whose monkey bit two preschoolers.

The department's inspector general did not name the facilities, but investigators said they were in the Eastern region of the department's Animal Care unit.

The numbers tell the story: Referrals for investigation into violations dropped from 209 annually in 2002 and 2003 in the Eastern region to 82 in 2004. During those years, the Eastern region issued 38 fines for $88,001, compared with the Western region's 143 fines for $187,060. The audit also said Eastern regional managers declined to act against 126 of 475 violators that were referred for investigation. In the West, managers declined to act against 18 of 439 violators.

The reason: "Now, all responsibility has been turned over to the regions, which opens the door for inconsistency," said a former Animal Care official who would not be named. "When we had more oversight at the national office, we had more consistency."

Animal Care has been headed by Chester A. Gipson, a deputy administrator of the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, since November 2001.

Animal Care spokesman Darby Holladay said both regions rely heavily on education as an incentive to discourage legal violations but acknowledged: "Sometimes, greater enforcement is needed, and Animal Care is addressing those concerns and has accepted the [audit's] recommendations."

-- Associated Press