In February 2017, shortly after the new administration took office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, without prior notice, removed from its website thousands of Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act inspection and enforcement records. These were public records, many containing descriptions of animal neglect and suffering at puppy mills, roadside zoos, research laboratories, and cruelty and abuse by trainers and owners of Tennessee walking horses and related breeds. The records had been available to the public in a searchable online database for years, and their removal made it impossible for the public and organizations like ours to learn which facilities were failing to comply with our federal government’s animal protection laws.
The USDA tried to spin the issue by saying that the public can simply obtain these documents by way of the Freedom of Information Act. But when The HSUS submitted requests last year under FOIA for records of inspections at three puppy mills in Ohio and at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia, where an HSUS undercover investigation discovered serious animal welfare violations, it was months later, and only after a threat to sue the USDA, that we finally received the requested documents. All relevant information, including the inspection dates, the number and species of animals at the facilities, and even the entire substance of the inspection reports (including whether or not there were any apparent AWA violations), was completely blacked out.
Today, in response to this blatant and ongoing attempt by the USDA to mislead the public and protect the perpetrators of cruelty, The HSUS filed a lawsuit against the agency for its failure to release crucial animal welfare public records.
The USDA also withheld more than 600 photographs and nearly a dozen videos obtained in connection with AWA inspections that The HSUS had requested, citing privacy concerns. That makes no sense, because these are businesses conducting commercial activity, licensed to do so by the federal government, and some, like zoos, are even open to the public. And nobody who has trouble meeting the most basic animal welfare standards in the course of their business should have a guarantee of privacy.
The 2017 data purge prompted an outpouring of condemnation and objections from animal advocacy organizations, a bipartisan group of 120 federal lawmakers, members of the public, the House Appropriations Committee, and even from members of the regulated industries (e.g., Speaking of Research, a pro-animal research organization opposing the USDA purge, noted: “[w]hen information is hidden, particularly where it was once available…the public wonders what is being hidden and why, and researchers must devote even more resources to combatting the public perception that they are not transparent.”)
In response, the USDA has slowly reposted select inspection reports for select facilities—but has continued to leave the identifying details on many of the worst offenders’ records hidden from public view. This includes almost all of the records for puppy mills, other kinds of pet breeders, and roadside zoos.
Timely access to AWA and HPA records is critical not only for ensuring that the USDA is properly regulating and inspecting facilities licensed or otherwise covered under these laws, but also to satisfy the interests of consumers wanting to know whether the breeder they are about to buy a puppy or a show horse from, or the zoo they are about to patronize, has been in compliance with the humane standards required by these laws. Pet stores and law enforcement officials also rely on inspection reports to determine compliance with state and local laws. Eight states have puppy mill laws that hinge on being able to check federal AWA records. The HSUS regularly used the records to document cruelty, suffering and abuse, such as our annual Horrible Hundred reports that warn consumers about puppy mills with welfare concerns.
The USDA’s decision to keep these public records hidden is not the only sign of its tilt toward a lack of transparency and accountability. Today, The HSUS also submitted detailed comments urging the USDA not to move forward with its plan to rely on some third-party inspections or certifications to determine facilities are complying with the Animal Welfare Act. This plan would essentially allow the industries that are using the animals to self-police. While USDA inspection and enforcement have been far from perfect, allowing the industry to partially regulate itself would be a disastrous plan by any measure, particularly for the animals used by these industries. The USDA’s own Inspector General has pointed out what a failure such self-policing can be, in its 2010 audit calling on the agency to abandon its system that involves oversight of the Horse Protection Act by some involved in horse soring.
With today’s lawsuit, and comments submitted by so many of our members and supporters opposing third-party inspections, we are putting the USDA on notice. We will not stand by while the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act works instead to protect puppy mills, roadside zoos, horse trainers, and research laboratories that could be responsible for animal cruelty, neglect, and suffering.