Major Setback for Animal Welfare:
USDA Abruptly Removed All Animal Inspection Reports from Website
Much of what we know about what goes on behind the scenes regarding animals is due to relevant information from a critical USDA website, but that shockingly changed recently. As we went to press it was still a developing story.
For years, organizations intending to protect animals from harm in various animal use industries have been able to rely on investigations from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA is mandated with carrying out the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act, and it has done so by investigating animal facilities. Pet store owners have relied on USDA reports to ensure adequate health, safety, and humane treatment of puppies and kittens obtained from their sources, while zoos, research labs, circuses, and university labs used their reports to claim adherence to animal welfare regulations. On February 3, 2017, the USDA abruptly removed all such reports from its website, abruptly allowing groups like abusive puppy mills, inadequate and cruel roadside zoos, and careless animal research labs to operate in comparative secrecy.
The removal was apparently in response to lawsuits against the USDA by violators of its rules, especially by proponents of horse soring where horses (Tennessee Walking Horses) are “trained” to “high-step” by applying caustic chemicals to their legs and other highly cruel procedures, causing them to lift their legs high in order to minimize the pain. The outgoing Obama administration had tightened the rules to prevent this soring practice, but the Trump administration put these tighter rules on hold, allowing this extraordinarily cruel practice to continue. The justification for the removal of these reports was to protect individual privacy. These are the exact same reports and records that many groups relied upon to protect the welfare of animals. The agency’s decision has even been criticized by some of the regulated industries, who welcome the public’s trust through their transparency and clean records.
The USDA asserts that such records and reports will still be available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but FOIA requests can take weeks or months, even years, to obtain the same important information that used to be available instantly. Moreover, the USDA has gaping FOIA exemptions, such as #6 and #7 that allow the redaction of information that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an invasion of personal privacy.” Investigations that reveal horrible puppy mill conditions, egregious laboratory animal abuse, farm animal cruelty, and horse soring could certainly be said to be invasions of privacy by the abusers who want to carry out their usual business practices. Apparently, making sure that a habitual abuser’s privacy rights aren’t brought out into the open for correction is more important than the rights of millions of animals to humane treatment.
It’s possible that the USDA will reverse its poor decision to remove these valuable reports in response to public pressure. Even several Congressmen have expressed opposition to what the USDA has done. The HSUS has notified the USDA that removing the reports and records violates an accord reached in 2009, and this could grow into a lawsuit against the USDA decision, hopefully with many other animal welfare groups joining on. Animals deserve, need, this oversight, little as it is.
New York State Humane Association Humane Review, Vol. XXXI, Winter/Spring 2017.