USDA scales back on enforcing Animal Welfare Act violations by puppy mills, roadside zoos and other businesses
In early 2017, with a new administration in office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture deleted its online public database containing thousands of pages of records that the public and animal protection groups depended on to monitor Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act violations. These were public records financed by taxpayers, many containing descriptions of animal neglect and suffering at puppy mills, roadside zoos, research laboratories and cruelty on the part of trainers and owners of Tennessee walking horses and related breeds. It was a shocking dereliction of duty by an agency charged with maintaining public trust in our federal government’s oversight of animal use in a variety of contexts.
Unfortunately, it’s only getting worse. A new Washington Post article shows that the USDA, tasked with inspecting such facilities, has cut back drastically on the number of warnings it issues to businesses and enterprises it regulates. According to the Post, two years ago, USDA inspectors issued 192 written warnings to breeders, exhibitors and research labs that allegedly violated animal welfare laws, and the agency filed official complaints against 23. This year, the department issued just 39 warnings in the first three-quarters of fiscal 2018, and it filed and simultaneously settled just one complaint — levying a $2,000 fine on an Iowa dog breeder who had been out of business for five years.
Our own research shows that the USDA did not revoke any pet breeder licenses between May 2017 and May 2018, in contrast to approximately nine pet breeder licenses revoked in 2016. In May 2018, the USDA announced it will no longer cite a facility for a critical violation if certain conditions are met; for example, if the incident is not a repeat violation and the facility reports it. That means a facility may completely avoid enforcement consequences by taking a few simple steps—even if their negligence or mishandling caused an animal to suffer or die.
The data purge last year made it nearly impossible for us to track animal abuse and push for ending it, and we are challenging the withholding of animal welfare citations in court. We and others have used this data to reveal some of the most egregious animal abuses, like those detailed in our annual Horrible Hundred puppy mill reports. The USDA says that the information is still available through Freedom of Information Act requests, but when we submitted requests for records of inspections at four puppy mills in Ohio and at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia, where an HSUS undercover investigation discovered serious animal welfare violations, we were stonewalled. It was months later, and only after a threat to sue the USDA, that we finally received the requested documents, and relevant information, including the inspection dates, the number and species of animals at the facilities, and even the entire substance of the inspection reports, was completely blacked out.
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. This 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 be allowed to conceal the treatment of their animals.
With regard to Horse Protection Act enforcement, the USDA announced earlier this year that its inspectors at horse shows would no longer examine horses or cite for violations of the Act if an industry-appointed inspector first found a violation and show management disqualified the horse from competition. What this means is that a violation of the Act found right under the USDA’s nose will never be documented, tracked or prosecuted by the agency – and no meaningful penalty will ever be issued (since Tennessee walking horse industry organizations impose little or no penalties on violators). It’s as if the violation never happened – and the public will never know it did.
The agency told the Post that the drop in enforcement is the result of a suspension of hearings due to litigation, as well as a revamped enforcement process that emphasizes working more closely with alleged violators to remedy deficiencies. But in the absence of any transparency and information about these facilities online, we have no way to know if this is true.
Sadly, we believe that the USDA, despite its mandate to enforce federal laws, is bending over backwards to protect the very parties it is supposed to regulate on behalf of a concerned public. We called the agency out on this when the first signs of its dereliction of mission surfaced, and we continue to apply pressure to right the ship over there. We’re also working with allies in Congress to do the same. This year, a record bipartisan group of 190 Representatives and 38 Senators called for the USDA to strengthen its enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act and reverse the data purge. Congress as a whole directed the agency to restore the purged records, in appropriations language that the USDA has chosen to disregard. There’s a lot at stake, for animals and for those who care about them.