After the election of President Trump, many departments, such as health care, environmental regulation, and immigration were hotly contested by both parties and affected by new legislation. One department that hasn’t been receiving much attention is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or the USDA. On February 3rd, documents provided by the USDA were removed without warning or justification. These federal and state documents, used by journalists, animal advocacy organizations, and citizens, reported violations of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act. These documents were critical in identifying dog breeders, horse breeders, and laboratories that mistreated animals and providing record of these abuses to the public. These records also allowed the public to monitor government regulation of animals at circuses, labs, and zoos.
The USDA removed these documents in an effort to commit to the “privacy rights of individuals with whom we come into contact.” In order to have access to these once public documents, parties would have to file under the Freedom of Information Act, requiring proper purpose and likely facing a lengthy process to have their request fulfilled. This long period between the filing and the attainment of information could allow malpractice breeders to continue their actions since customers may not know about their previous violations before a completed transaction.
On a grander scale, the removal of this information could curb efforts to reduce sourcing from puppy mills. Seven states require pet stores to source puppies from breeders with no USDA violations. Without public records, this requirement will be difficult to enforce, as the stores can no longer verify the history of the breeder and any violations that they have recently faced. Law enforcement will also not be able to verify that pet stores are exclusively sourcing from breeders with clean USDA inspection reports. This allows violators of the Animal Welfare Act to hide their abuses, as the violations will not be publicly reported or available through a simple search in the database.
On February 17, 2017, the USDA released a statement following backlash from lawmakers and animal welfare advocates. Over 100 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Trump, asking for the reports to be reinstated. The statement expressed that only certain welfare reports would be reposted, specifically only those pertaining to a select number of research and federal facilities inspected by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspections Services. This leads to a noticeable lack of information on circuses, zoos, animal breeders, and animal trainers.
John Goodwin, the director of the Humane Society’s Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, has been actively fighting the removal of this information. The Humane Society publishes an annual “Horrible Hundred” list, naming 100 dog breeders that have been cited for welfare violations in the past year. This list will lose its national coverage on dog breeding operations, since it will be limited to only state inspection records with the loss of the USDA reports. This allows breeders to be cloaked in secrecy, since inspections by the USDA will no longer be publicized and accessible to the public.
The removal of this information came only two days after Representative Ken Calvert (R-California) introduced a bill aiming to reduce animal testing in government research labs. With a lack of complete transparency surrounding animal testing in government-funding labs, the removal of the USDA database presents even tougher challenges for the animal advocates to overcome. No longer can animal welfare organizations easily identify violators and post their name in public forums. Breeders, trainers, and researchers can more easily conceal their mistreatment, resulting in an unsure and dangerous future for all animals.