20 February 2017

WELFARE - Wave of Opposition to USDA Removal of Animal Welfare Records from Website

(Meredith Lee, HSUS)
The abrupt abolishment of public records from a federal database puts animals in peril and allows would-be abusers to hide their heinous actions, advocates warn.

The move by the US. Department of Agriculture (USDA,) sees inspection reports purged from its online database – meaning information on the treatment of everything from animals in research labs to circuses, dog breeding operations and zoos is no longer readily available to the public.

The sudden and jarring news is “a shameful attempt to keep the public from knowing when and which laws and regulations have been violated,” Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is quoted as saying in the Washington Post.

“Many federally registered and licenced facilities have long histories of violations that have caused terrible suffering.”

Guillermo also pointed out the database is funded by public tax dollars “and the public should not be kept in the dark because the feds would rather shield abusers than hold them accountable.”

She isn’t alone - numerous outspoken animal-welfare advocates fear removing crucial information such as records of enforcement actions against violators of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act, will leave animals unprotected in future.

In the past, the information has been used by everyone from journalists to animal advocates to expose animal abuse and be a watchdog for adherence to government regulations regarding everything from treatment of animals at circuses and in laboratories.

Relying on it has exposed everything from abuse of elephants to dehydration deaths of lab monkeys and horrendous experiments on helpless animals.

Seven states mandate pet stores have a clear USDA record from dog breeders to ensure they are coming from reputable operations.

USDA officials claim the decision was prompted by court rulings and privacy laws and on the heels of “a comprehensive review” over the last year.

Individuals can access information via the Freedom of Information Act Request – a bureaucratic process which can take months or even years for approval.

On the flip side, however, the move is being applauded by some who accused government of being “overly aggressive and influenced by animal protection groups,” the Washington Post reports.

Those supportive of the USDA decision to ditch the public records include businesses like exotic pet breeders who saw the easy access to information and repressive “government oversight” of their operations as unacceptable.

Recently, Mindy Patterson, president of the Cavalry Group penned a scathing column claiming the USDA had “succumbed to the pressure of animal rights extremists” and that public records were relied on by groups like PETA and the Humane Society to malign businesses, at times even sharing information such as addresses and photographs.

While USDA officials defend their position by citing the need to protect privacy concerns – many critics point out information previously online often had identifying information such as names and addresses redacted.

Records made available for decades are now no longer accessible which has opponents saying the move pitches animal abuse into the dark – protecting those who would do harm while essentially leaving animals easy prey.

The documents previously available shed light on cruelty in “substandard roadside zoos, shameful animal circuses, puppy breeding factories and more,” Born Free USA’s Adam Roberts states in National Geographic.

“Often, the animals in these facilities may have visible wounds or cramped conditions or no access to water ... the government’s decision to make it harder to access this information further protects animal exploiters in the shroud of secrecy on which their nefarious activities thrive.”

The Humane Society of the United States has launched legal action against the USDA maintaining the position that the removal of the records violates a 2009 settlement between the two parties.

Other animal rights groups have also filed a joint lawsuit saying the purging of the records impedes their ability to identify violations under the Animal Welfare Act.

These are allegations at this point with the USDA yet to respond to any legal actions taken.

In 2005, the Humane Society successfully sued the USDA over public access to reports of animal use in university and other labs – a case settled years later in exchange for the USDA’s agreement to post certain information online regarding animal research.

The removal of information from the website is a clear violation of the terms of that settlement, the Humane Society says.

About Nadia Moharib
Nadia is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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