The Humane Society of the United States announced on Monday that it is taking legal action after the removal of years of records by the United States Department of Agriculture from their public website this past week.
According to the organization, the HSUS took the first step to initiate legal action challenging the action claimed by multiple animal advocacy groups as the undermining of a longstanding consensus about public access to information concerning laws, in turn frustrating state, local, and industry efforts to help enforce them. Records removed included reports for thousands of facilities including zoos, laboratories and commercial breeders – especially worrisome are puppy mill businesses. These records had previously been accessible through the public database website of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection. In the Humane Society’s president’s blog, Wayne Pacelle questioned why the USDA wouldn’t want their work to be part of the public’s database; stating the government agency’s “action suggests a deliberate effort to bury its work and impede efforts to ensure the well-being of animals in numerous sectors.”
The HSUS does have a particular advantage in this fight however. In 2005, the HSUS sued the USDA, alleging the department violated the Freedom of Information Act by not providing records relating to animal experiments at research facilities. In 2009, a settlement was reached with the USDA who agreed to post records online including information referencing pain and distress in laboratory animals. And on Monday, the HSUS stated the USDA has violated their agreement:
“The agency’s precipitous decision to purge virtually all AWA and HPA enforcement documentation – just two weeks after President Trump assumed office — violates the plain terms of the settlement and a federal court order. It also runs contrary to Congressional provisions in 1996 and 2016 designed to increase transparency and electronic access to information,” Pacelle wrote in his blog .”Like every federal agency, the USDA operates thanks to the generosity of taxpayers, and it must be accountable to them. The USDA is changing the equation for the worse for animals and the public with this action.
The USDA has since cited privacy concerns for removing the records from its website, stating that anyone wanting information still has the right to receive information via a FOIA request. Those requests can take months to request and are often very costly. The public records have been used for animal shelters, rescues and advocacy groups as well as journalists covering animal welfare issues.
The following specific areas have been addressed:
- Animal Research – The public will no longer have access to information about hundreds of animal research institutions, including universities, pharmaceutical companies, and federal laboratories using animals regulated under the AWA. This includes information on the number and type of animals (such as dogs, cats, primates, and other species) used as well as how many are subjected to unrelieved pain and distress.
- Horse Soring – Advocates fighting the criminal behavior of the pain-based Big Lick segment of the walking horse industry has been canned. The new administration earlier froze a near-finalized USDA rule to crack down on the abusers (there’s a major movement in Congress to turn that around).
- Exotic Animals and Roadside Zoos – The HSUS has tracked violations from inspections of roadside zoos, and has put that information in a form that gives state and federal lawmakers and regulators a broad picture of how this industry is complying with the AWA. On Monday, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a zoo accrediting organization, stated the move only erodes the public trust in high quality facilities while hiding those who mistreat animals.
- Puppy Mills – Last year, the USDA revoked the licenses of nine horrific puppy mills, most of which The HSUS had identified repeatedly in their annual Horrible Hundred reports. Without the availability of public inspection records, The HSUS will have great difficulty obtaining the information needed to press the agency on the egregious puppy mills being investigated. The USDA’s decision now leaves regulated dog sellers in those states with no practical way to comply with those laws, and state and local law enforcement with almost no ability to enforce them. Without ready access to information, it will be nearly impossible for consumers, law enforcement agencies, policymakers, and pet stores to know which breeders had violations.
In response the U.S Department of Agriculture released a statement referencing the removal of animal welfare reports from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stating the following:
“The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. In 2106, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website. While the agency is vigorously defending this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy. These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”
(Photo of Humane Society of the United States puppy mill victim.)
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