U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Care inspector Bob Markmann conducts an inspection at a commercial dog breeding facility.
It’s not just human beings who have reason to fear the reign of Donald Trump.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture abruptly purged from its website inspection reports and other data regarding animal welfare at thousands of research facilities, pet breeding operations, and other users of live animals. This move makes it much more difficult for the public to learn about the often horrific mistreatment of animals, whether by publicly funded researchers or by private business operators.
The Humane Society of the United States said on Monday that it intends to pursue legal action against the USDA to force the agency to restore the tens of thousands of documents on animal welfare.
The website portal that once allowed easy public access to these reports now leads to an “Announcement” explaining why they were removed. The USDA says the change was necessary to protect against the release of personal information in those records. But Michael Budkie, executive director of the Ohio-based nonprofit, Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, calls this explanation “nothing more than a smokescreen.”
“I have looked at many thousands of animal use reports and inspection reports,” he says, “and in my experience they contain virtually no personal information.” In cases where this does occur, Budkie adds, this information is easily redacted before the reports are made available.
Budkie calls the removal of the reports “a huge deal” with sweeping impacts. According to the USDA, the purged documents “include inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records . . . .” Everything from puppy mills to horse sellers to circuses and zoos are subject to USDA oversight and inspections.
According to an article in The Washington Post, “Seven states currently require pet stores to source puppies from breeders with clean USDA inspection reports, according to the Humane Society of the United States—a requirement that could now be impossible to meet.”
The paper quoted John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society’s Stop Puppy Mills campaign, which has used these reports to track abuses, as saying, “The USDA action cloaks even the worst puppy mills in secrecy and allows abusers of Tennessee walking horses, zoo animals, and lab animals to hide even the worst track records in animal welfare.”
“The USDA action cloaks even the worst puppy mills in secrecy and allows abusers of Tennessee walking horses, zoo animals, and lab animals to hide even the worst track records in animal welfare.”
Agrees Budkie, “This is another example of the willingness of the Trump Administration to
stifle the public's right to know and hide the fact that hundreds of animal laboratories, animal dealers, and breeders are essentially career criminals.”
The Post said it is “unclear whether the decision to remove the animal-related records was driven by newly hired Trump Administration officials.” Department spokespeople have also refused to say whether the removal is temporary or permanent.
The no-longer available USDA records have been used in the past by advocates like Budkie as well as media outlets reporting on abuses of animals in research facilities. For instance, a 2015 Boston Globe article reported on monkey deaths at Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center. Neglected squirrel monkeys were found dead in their cages or so ill they had to be euthanized due to dehydration. One three-year-old female died from thirst because her tooth was caught in a garment, making it impossible for her to drink.
Budkie says there are currently at least twelve research facilities under USDA investigation due to complaints filed by his group based on publicly available information. He says “the people of this country have a right to know what goes on in animal laboratories because they are literally paying for it.” In all, the federal government spends at estimated $14 billion a year in taxpayer dollars on animal research.
The USDA says its reports will still be available, but requesters must now file formal Freedom of Information Act requests, a process that can take years. Budkie notes that the USDA is “notorious” for its poor compliance with federal records law; he currently has several requests going back to last October for which he has received no records. And now that all information sought by outsiders involves individual records requests instead of pulling information off websites, he says, “the lag time will just get worse and worse.”
“We won’t see those [inspection reports] for six months to a year after they take place,” Budkie says. “This takes that information and turns it into old news. It takes the data about private laboratories and makes it the next best thing to useless.”
Budkie says animal researchers have long sought to shut down access to information about USDA inspections, an urge that may be magnified in recent years by record fines imposed on researcher facilities for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Last May, a private California-based research facility, Santa Cruz Biotechnology, agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine and close its research lab over charges of mistreatment of goats and rabbits. As the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported, the action followed USDA complaints filed against the company in 2012, 2014, and 2015. The third complaint alleged “repeated failure to provide minimally adequate and expeditious veterinary care and treatment to animals.” According to the Sentinel, “A goat in distress was killed with a bolt pistol to the head because a veterinarian was not available.”
The penalty, says Budkie, is “the largest in the history of Animal Welfare Act enforcement.” His group had filed multiple complaints against Santa Cruz Biotechnology.
In December, the USDA imposed a $185,000 fine and thirty-day license suspension on Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories, a private animal research laboratory in Everett, Washington, over the deaths of thirty-eight monkeys. Among these were two monkeys who died of strangulation in separate incidents when they partially escaped from their cages and got their heads entangled in cables. The USDA also noted the deaths of seventeen monkeys due to organ failure caused by dehydration and hypoglycemia during transport to other facilities.
This enforcement action, Budkie says, was prompted by a complaint he filed in May 2014, based on information in USDA reports.