When animal advocates received a bulletin from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week claiming that it had restored additional animal welfare inspection data to its website, it was clear that the agency intended to give the impression to lawmakers and others concerned about its massive information take-down that it had remedied the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. What the agency did has accomplished nothing to address the core concerns at issue.
There’s still no meaningful data on violators of the Horse Protection Act – the federal law that forbids injuring the feet and legs of Tennessee walking horses to cause them to exaggerate their gait to perform the pain-based “big lick” gait (a practice sure to be in evidence at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration this week). Inspection reports for individuals and facilities exhibiting captive wild animals have still not been completely restored. HSUS researchers who pulled up puppy mill inspection reports online using the USDA’s new “refined public search tool” quickly found that, while details on more specific violations are now provided, the vast majority of them are not linked to the names or identities of any of the suspected violators. Most of the puppy mill inspection reports merely list violations, with the details on the licensee’s identity and location blacked out. This makes the information useless. You have to have the name and the violation in order to understand what’s happening at the mills on the ground.
The USDA is still executing its policy based on what it represents as an overriding concern about “privacy” – and not wanting to point the finger at licensees involved in violating our federal animal welfare laws prior to any court proceeding. Consequently, the only records that are now available related to pet breeders on the website are those that are “non-residential business entities,” leaving out the majority of puppy mills that operate from a home address. This includes only a handful of dealers, such as the large puppy brokers that resell to pet stores. And while the USDA has a list of licensed individuals online, there are no inspection reports tied to the names.
This anemic response to criticism of the agency still makes it impossible for the public, animal welfare organizations, or businesses that use and sell animals from regulated facilities to know who the worst animal welfare violators are or whether the USDA is enforcing federal laws as it should. That means a family that wants to buy a puppy without supporting a puppy mill has no way of knowing if the puppy they wish to purchase in a pet store or online came from a facility with a terrible history. Our researchers are still unable to determine which puppy mills and other regulated entities are accumulating the worst violations – information that is vital to reports such as our annual Horrible Hundred report on problem puppy mills. And we are still unable to see the official warning letters and stipulations that indicate which facilities have been put on notice by the USDA regarding inadequate animal care.
Nobody who violates the law has a guarantee of privacy. Court records of individuals who are accused of violating even the most mundane traffic laws are routinely made available on municipal court websites, for example – even before such cases are fully adjudicated. The USDA is applying a standard here that’s not in evidence in any other domain in which people are asked to adhere to the law. Lawmakers, animal protection groups, and other citizens shouldn’t be bamboozled by this feeble attempt to say the data dump issue has been settled or to claim that privacy concerns trump the public’s right to know about inspection activities for a federally funded program.
A bipartisan group of 120 federal lawmakers sent letters in February urging the administration to restore online access to the records. Then, 222 senators and representatives requested appropriations language on this and a House committee directed the USDA to resume posting the records in a searchable database. More than 134,000 citizens have signed a petition urging the same.
The fractured, disconnected information now on the USDA’s Animal Care website is still unusable, and we are no closer to resolving this mess now than we were months ago, when the USDA first yanked its search tool overnight and without any compelling justification. By continuing this practice, the USDA is not only defying Congress, but also the customs and procedures that govern enforcement activity of almost every type in our country.