Earlier this month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) deleted thousands of documents regarding animal welfare—including inspection records and annual reports for commercial animal institutions like zoos, breeders, pet stores, and laboratories—from its website. These records often revealed cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, cases that most certainly would have remained hidden and untried.
This drastic change comes after decades of public availability. The decision has not yet been finalized, but for now, activists, journalists, or your Average Joe will not be able to search information about whether facilities have ever violated regulations like the Animal Welfare Act.
Occurring just three weeks into the Trump administration, some animal activist groups blame this particular government—whose head of the USDA transition team is a longtime opponent of the Humane Society of the United States—for its decision to directly support animal cruelty. However, USDA announced in a statement that cites personal privacy concerns as justification for the removal. “After a [yearlong] comprehensive review, the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service has implemented actions to remove certain personal information from documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare… Going forward, APHIS will remove from its website inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication.” APHIS continues that people seeking records can make a request to the USDA through the Freedom of Information Act. But FOIA requests are expensive and can take months or even years to be approved.
Why should you be concerned about the USDA’s record removal act? To start, the safety of animals could be in more jeopardy from now on. Animal activist groups are worried that it will be difficult to patrol and punish those who abuse and exploit animals. “This move makes it IMPOSSIBLE to find out where animals are located, their treatment and any violations, essentially giving carte blanche to anyone to hide animal violations, and violate animal welfare laws, among other things,” said The Beagle Freedom Project lab animal rescue group in a Facebook statement. The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) has already reminded the government that under the terms of a 2009 legal settlement, USDA had agreed the public some of the records it has now scrubbed from its database. HSUS has warned that they will exercise their legal rights and intends to take further action if the removal is not reversed.
Journalists will no longer have the access they require to shed media light on important topics, such as animal abuse. In this way, the public also will have little knowledge on the truth behind animal treatment in regards to cosmetic products, pet stores, universities, or zoos. The public will unknowingly patronize institutions whose values they may or may not mean to support. “The public deserves to have easy access to the information because taxpayer money funds the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act,” Kate Dylewsky of conservation and animal rights group Born Free USA told The Dodo. In addition to the public simply deserving to be in the know, Dan Ashe of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums describes the removal as “not in the interest of credible, legitimate animal care facilities. What [the action] does is it erodes public confidence, because when people see something like that, they’re inclined, rightfully, to think that the government is trying to shield something from their view.”
Photo credit: Humane Society of United States