The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jarring removal of thousands of Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act inspection reports from its website has caused anger among animal advocates, concern among many in the regulated industries who want to be able to show their clean records, and condemnation from opinion-leaders, lawmakers, and a wide range of others concerned about good governance. The records removed documented the treatment of animals at nearly 8,000 facilities and events, including research laboratories, horse competitions, roadside zoos, and dog breeding operations across the country.
With no cabinet secretary overseeing USDA – former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has been nominated but not confirmed yet – it’s been difficult to pin down which individuals at the agency are responsible for this adverse action. We do know, though, that the USDA transition leader hired by the Trump team is Brian Klippenstein, whose full time job is to thwart animal protection goals on behalf of Forrest Lucas’ “Protect the Harvest.” Klippenstein has campaigned against bills, ballot measures, and rules to crack down on puppy mills, horse soring operations, extreme farm animal confinement practices, horse slaughter, and much more.
Obama’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, according to The Washington Post, said he didn’t sign off on the idea of the data purge. He did, however, say litigation was one of the factors that had been stirring discussion within the USDA. It appears that some folks at the USDA – under the limited threat of a lawsuit from two Tennessee walking horse owners cited for violations of the Horse Protection Act and challenging the posting of information about their alleged violations of the anti-soring law – were quick to seize that opportunity to take down a vast trove of information related not just to that industry, but related to puppy mills, animal research facilities, and many other players.
Specifically, in February 2016, Lee and Mike McGartland of Contender Farms, both with histories of alleged HPA violations, filed an action along with other industry players against the USDA claiming the agency’s horse protection program violated their rights to due process. Through the pleadings to the court, they also argued the infringement of their rights through the posting of the USDA’s inspection reports, which expose the names of alleged abusers.
The USDA has been defending against the McGartland suit, and it would be odd for the agency to not only reverse its position in the courts that the agency had every right to post the violations, but to effectively universalize their concern and do a take-down of every inspection record conducted by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.
When you have an enforcement program, some of the alleged violators of the law are going to fight back and make counter-arguments, kicking and screaming and coming up with excuses and arguments to support their position. That’s what’s happened here.
What a horrid precedent it would be for the USDA or any enforcement agency to cave in and gut aspects of its enforcement program when a violator of the law isn’t happy with legal actions taken against them. Can you imagine the chaos that would result in our society if those responsible for overseeing the laws were so timid?
Simply put, there is no court order looming that could justify or compel the USDA’s midnight takedown of its entire animal inspections database. Indeed, as it relates to the McGartland suit, there hasn’t even been any substantive briefing yet. So it’s clear that some decision-makers at the USDA are doing the bidding of the horse soring crowd and the puppy mill folks, and others, too, maybe. There’s just no other explanation for this action.
But what’s noteworthy is that so many businesses under the Animal Welfare Act inspection program agree that the USDA’s action is unwarranted and unjust. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Petland, and Speaking of Research are among stakeholders who’ve spoken out against the purge of these records.
Lawmakers in more than a half-dozen states are angry that state statutes they worked to enact – requiring the sale of dogs only when the breeders are in full compliance with USDA standards – are unworkable now.
And we know that our efforts to crack down on the worst puppy mills will be complicated. Last year, under Vilsack’s leadership, the USDA revoked the licenses of nine puppy mills, most of which The HSUS had identified in our annual Horrible Hundred reports, including breeders who were repeatedly found with injured or dead dogs and puppies on their properties. Without public inspection records, The HSUS and other animal protection groups would have great difficulty obtaining the information needed to press for strong enforcement reforms and seek improvement of standards for commercial breeders.
It was USDA records of violations related to the Animal Welfare Act that helped us achieve those protections against puppy mills, unlawful roadside zoos, and breeders/dealers who sell dogs and other animals to laboratories. But it appears the USDA data related to the HPA is proving to be the most troublesome for the agency, and perhaps was its basis for eliminating the public’s access to its records.
The USDA’s public databases related to the HPA are often used by numerous equestrians who don’t engage in or approve of soring – the intentional infliction of pain on the legs and hooves of Tennessee walking horses and related breeds to create the artificial show gait known as the “big lick” – as a resource to see who they should select or not select as a trainer or breeder of a horse, or while purchasing or selling a horse. Undoubtedly, the removal of these records from the Internet will hurt efforts by legitimate horse owners to shun the abusers who unfortunately cast influence on the breed and its corresponding industry.
The HSUS notified the administration earlier this week that the deactivation of the website database violates the terms pursuant to a 2009 HSUS v. USDA settlement, and the USDA now has 30 days to respond. In keeping with our commitment to fight to restore public access in every available venue, HSUS attorneys have teamed up with pro bono counsel at Latham & Watkins to intervene in the Texas case today to prevent the horse soring proponents and the USDA transition team from cutting any sweetheart deals behind closed doors. We will continue to utilize our resources to the full extent of the law, but we will need your voice to turn around this reckless decision from the USDA.