Breaking news: Key House committee, federal court direct USDA to release crucial animal welfare records
The House appropriations committee has just issued a clear directive to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reinstate full public access to animal welfare inspection reports and other records that show how businesses like roadside zoos and puppy mills, and research facilities that do invasive research, are treating the animals in their care. It also directs the agency to restore access to enforcement records of horse shows in which Tennessee walking horses and related breeds compete. The directive, part of the FY 2020 agriculture spending bill approved today by the committee, comes on the heels of a federal court ruling last night that also ordered the USDA to release information regarding violations of the Animal Welfare Act at licensed facilities.
The Humane Society of the United States has been fighting for this outcome with all available means since the USDA suddenly and without explanation removed the records from its website in February 2017. The blackout left groups like ours and the public in the dark on important animal welfare information that reveals what really goes on behind the scenes at the thousands of entities regulated by the USDA. The records also give critical insight into how—and if—the agency is properly implementing the Animal Welfare Act, the law that regulates the treatment of animals used by thousands of businesses and facilities, and the Horse Protection Act, the law that prohibits the cruel practice of “soring” in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.
It is especially important that the public have access to this information now because the administration itself has all but stopped enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act, allowing facilities to neglect and mistreat their animals with little to no consequences.
Last year, following the blackout, we submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act for information on certain facilities with prior records of animal mistreatment and neglect. Among other requests, we asked for inspection records of Natural Bridge Zoo, a facility where the HSUS had conducted an undercover investigation in 2014. Our investigation revealed conditions that included physical abuse of tiger cubs and other animals, a severe lack of veterinary care, enclosures infested with maggots, the use of inhumane euthanasia, and an instance of an employee filing down a monkey’s teeth without proper anesthesia. We also requested records of two Ohio puppy mills, where prior inspection reports revealed violations such as dogs with feet swollen from standing in wire cages, dogs with feces-encrusted fur, a dog with a severe ear injury, the sale of underage puppies, and the failure to provide veterinary care to dozens of dogs with advanced dental disease.
But when the USDA responded, it blacked out the entire substance of every single inspection report, leaving us with no recourse but to file a lawsuit against the agency, demanding that the records be released so we could keep the public informed.
The federal judge yesterday agreed with the HSUS that the Freedom of Information Act does not shield information pertaining to animal business operations and that releasing the substance of inspection reports does not invade the personal privacy of owners of these facilities. He ordered the USDA to release the records that the agency has been withholding.
Our kudos to the HSUS Animal Protection Litigation team for their fine job in getting this ruling, and to the Humane Society Legislative Fund team, which pressed to get the language on the AWA and HPA records purge in the agriculture appropriations bill. We had a major ally in subcommittee Chairman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., who included this and other pro-animal provisions in the bill he advanced. The agriculture appropriations bill will next come up for a vote before the full House, and the Senate will do its version. We will keep working to ensure that this key language is enacted.
With both members of Congress and the federal judiciary weighing in on the issue, the USDA has no excuse to continue hiding this important information from the public. We urge the agency to immediately restore its online searchable Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act records. We charged our government more than 50 years ago to take steps to protect animals at such institutions, and that’s what it should be doing. It certainly should not be involved in protecting businesses and institutions that use animals, and sometimes mistreat them, from public scrutiny.