On February 13, 2017, a coalition of animal advocates filed this lawsuit, petitioning the USDA and APHIS to restore the crucial records they removed from a government website a few weeks ago. Though not part of the lawsuit, the HSUS is also considering legal action. Here’s what happened to prompt the lawsuit.
You might believe that ‘studies’ such as the Draize eye irritancy test or beagle testing labs are a thing of the past. Sadly, even though non-animal methods are available and utilized, these facilities still exist. Animal welfare organizations were able to track and take action on such activities and facilities through a variety of methods. One primary tool they use is the USDA’s website.
Approximately 9,000 facilities such as animal shelters, puppy mills, labs, zoos, tourist attractions, pet stores, factory farms, breeders, animal transporters, animal importers, Nosey the Elephant, etc., had information vital to animal welfare organizations on the site. This information was reported and available to the public and government watchdog groups, until a few weeks ago when it was suddenly removed. The official reason for the removal, according to multiple sources, is highly disputed.
As seen here, the White House ordered the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to censor and remove every single bit of information regarding animal welfare, including animal welfare inspection reports, enforcement records, etc., from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website. The posted reason for removing the records,
“remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.”
In reality, inspection reports contain little, if any, personal information about individuals. Reports already redact locations of facilities to protect privacy.
These records are taxpayer funded. We have a right to see these records. The spokesperson claims that a FOIL (Freedom of Information Act) can be submitted for the records, but these take weeks, months, sometimes years to receive. The animals in peril simply do not have the luxury of time. If any facility begins using animals in any way, no one will know. People breaking animal welfare laws are now hidden. They are unaccountable for their crimes.
Here are the responses from animal welfare groups:
Humane Society of the United States: “This action benefits no one, except facilities who have harmed animals and don’t want anyone to know.”
Stop Puppy Mills Campaign: “The public is no longer going to know which commercial dog breeders, horse trainers, which zoos, which research labs have horrible animal welfare track records.”
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “All personal and location information was censored before documents were publicly disclosed, so it’s unclear how the wholesale removal of these records demonstrates a commitment to transparency or privacy rights.”
Last Chance For Animals: “the USDA is committing censorship in its most insidious form, and protecting animal abusers instead of the animals that we pay them with our tax dollars to protect.”
Farm Sanctuary: “(we) encourage transparency and accountability… This change enables animal abusers, and we urge that it be reconsidered.”
Companion Animals Project: “Without a database, the public cannot easily discover if a dog or cat breeder has been abusing animals at their facility.”
Mercy For Animals: “it could just be a matter of time before Humane Methods of Slaughter Act records are removed as well.”
Beagle Freedom Project: “This unprecedented move destroys transparency and makes it harder for BFP to rescue animals from laboratory experiments. #Tucker #NoUSDAblackout.”
Born Free USA: “The public has a right to know what the government is doing, and this is a blow to both government transparency and to animal advocates’ ability to hold animal abusers publicly accountable.”
Animal Welfare Institute: “AWI condemns in the strongest possible terms APHIS’ abhorrent decision.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund is “appalled by the sudden blackout. Revoking public access to these documents ensures that illegal mistreatment, which would otherwise be targeted by animal protection groups, stays hidden from the public.” Says ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells:
“Scrubbing Animal Welfare Act inspection reports from the internet is an affront to the transparency vital to our democracy.”
The White House pointed to the previous administration as the guilty party, claiming that the review began in 2016, before the current administration came into office. However, a spokesman for Tom Vilsack, President Obama’s agriculture secretary, revealed that their administration had decided NOT to remove the reports; it was “not required.”
“Same option given 2 past admin. We refused. #transparency,” tweeted Matthew Herrick.
It’s probable that the reason the information was expunged was due to recent legislative activity by the White Coat Waste Project. WCWP is a non-profit campaign exposing and eliminating the government’s $12 billion+ taxpayer-funded animal experimentation budget; a taxpayer-watchdog attacking the root of the animal experimentation problem: wasteful government spending.
According to the WCWP, only two types of documents were found on the USDA site: annual reports, which are self-reported by facilities, and inspection reports, filed by USDA inspectors.
A day before the USDA site went dark, WCWP introduced a bill called the FACT Act (HR 816 – Federal Accountability in Chemical Testing). This bipartisan bill would increase transparency about secretive, expensive and ineffective animal tests for cosmetics, foods and other substances conducted by government agencies. It was thought a bill to reduce wasteful spending would appeal to a conservative White House and foster a new pro-animal coalition that refused to support ‘junk science’.
One organization happy for the change of tide is The Calvary Group, who, among other things, works to protect private ownership of wild animals including bears, big cats and animals forced to perform like Nosey the Elephant. Their bio states, “The Cavalry Group exists as a firewall between our members and the bully-tactics of animal rights groups.” According to Mindy Patterson, president of the Calvary Group,
“animal rights groups… are nefariously using private confidential information handed to them by the USDA.”
They also believe the USDA has ‘succumbed to the pressure of animal rights extremists by hiring them into key USDA positions.’
There are currently a number of animal welfare cases being presented in the courts, including one for horse soring. President Trump has put a freeze on any legislation protecting Tennessee Walking Horses. All information regarding the Horse Protection Act (HPA) is now hidden from taxpayers. The Calvary Group applauded this recent action on the part of the President, claiming the legislation was “deceptive.”
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is also slamming this decision, stating, “AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos pride themselves in not only adhering to, but also in exceeding, the Animal Welfare Act and its regulations.. earning the public’s trust and confidence… which is eroded by efforts that are seemingly intended to shield information from public view.”
As ShelterMe.tv previously reported, Brian Klippenstein, a defender of puppy mills, is part of President Trump’s advisory committee. Immediately following his inauguration, other information was removed from the Whitehouse.gov website, including information related to LGBTQ issues, civil rights, healthcare, climate change data, veterans assistance and Spanish translations of each area.
Last year the FBI began tracking data on animal abuse crimes. Will removal of pertinent information from this website affect animal advocates’ wish to create a national database of animal abusers? Only time will tell.
You can add your name to support the FACT Act here. You can add your name to support these petitions to restore the USDA site on these links: ForceChange.com, Change.org, the Petition Site, Care2 and HSUS. For more information on the White Coat Waste Project, click here. Here is the phone number to contact the USDA during normal business hours, E.S.T., to politely ask them to restore the site: 844-820-2234.
Please email complaints to: customerservicecallcenter@APHIS.USDA.gov. Send an email to APHIS on this link, or write to the following address:
Administrator Kevin Shea
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
US Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Ask the USDA to put back the information data base. Join the fight with any of these wonderful organizations who advocate for animals. For all of you who’ve said, ‘don’t let politics divide us, we’re here for the animals…,’ it’s time to use your voice for these voiceless animals. Please.