USA TODAY Editorial Board: USDA puts blinders on animal abuse

Until early this month, you could go to a federal website to find out how animals are being treated at thousands of commercial dog breeders, zoos and research facilities. The site served as a protector of animals — from puppies to primates — by opening a window on mistreatment of defenseless creatures.

But three weeks into the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture slammed shut access to this public information, purging the website and sweeping years of inspection reports and  other data back under cover.

The website has been an irreplaceable resource for journalists and animal welfare advocates seeking to shine light on all manner of cruelty at government-regulated businesses across the country. These included:

  •  A breeding and research lab in Washington state where 38 primates died, according to a USDA complaint, as a result of everything from botched surgeries and dehydration to strangulation when entangled in a cable.
  • Puppy mills where underweight and injured dogs live out their lives in unsanitary conditions, or where injured dogs fail to get proper veterinary treatment, or where small dogs are left outside in freezing weather.
  • A California biotechnology company where goats were mistreated, according to the USDA. While denying the allegations, the company agreed to pay a $3.5 million civil penalty, one of the largest in USDA history.

Animal welfare advocates had fought for years to get this information online, at times resorting to lawsuits against the USDA to force public information to be, well, public. Since 2009, more and more data, covering about 10,000 federal licensees now, became available to animal lovers, regulators and law enforcement.

A diligent consumer could check commercial dog breeders to determine if a puppy offered by a pet store came from a breeder with a clean record. Advocates, including the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Animal Welfare Institute, have used the information to investigate abuse at puppy mills, research facilities and roadside zoos. The Beagle Freedom Project has identified research facilities where laboratory beagles are nearing the end of their scientific usefulness and has rescued the dogs to give them homes.

Seven states and many cities have based laws, aimed at preventing importation and sale of abused dogs from puppy mills, on the inspection information available only on the website. Enforcement has been upended.

Why did the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service purge the records? The reasons are murky. A new Agriculture secretary is not in place, and an agency spokesman declined to answer questions.

According to a statement, the agency is involved in a lawsuit over information posted on the site and “in an abundance of caution” has taken “measures to protect individual privacy.” People can still try to get the information, the agency said, through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Purging the site is a ridiculous overreaction to litigation, and the FOIA process is typically tedious and time-consuming.

While the agency has not specified what the litigation is, a Texas couple who raise Tennessee walking horses and were cited for violations of the Horse Protection Act sued the department a year ago, charging that their due process rights were violated by enforcement procedures and the publication of their names without any sort of hearing.

By that logic, police and FBI would violate the rights of every person arrested, but not yet tried, by releasing their names to the public. And the Food and Drug Administration would violate the rights of every regulated business that receives "warning letters," which FDA publicly posts after inspections. The public would be left in the dark.

Even if some adjustment were needed based on the lawsuit, what could possibly justify pulling down tens of thousands of documents that have nothing to do with the couple, or the Horse Protection Act?

The Humane Society, which reached a court settlement in 2009 with USDA to make annual reports on research facilities public, is seeking to intervene in the Texas lawsuit to protect that agreement and the public interest. On Monday, other animal welfare groups and individuals sued in federal court to reinstate the site. And thousands of individuals have signed a petition on Change.org calling for reinstatement, joined by animal lovers tweeting on #usdablackout.

The public deserves access to information gathered at government expense under the Animal Welfare and Horse Protection laws. Most of all, innocent creatures deserve public oversight to assure that they are treated humanely.

USA TODAY


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