Local humane societies react to removal of animal welfare reports from USDA website

Some records have returned after outcry from lawmakers and advocacy groups

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  • Puppy mill dogs (American Association for the Preventionof Cruelty to Animals: aspca.org)

“These are some of the most vulnerable animals, as they are in the hands of large corporations, factory farms and commercial breeding facilities where the bottom line dictates the welfare of the animals. They become more disposable as a mass commodity and therefore less likely to receive needed veterinary care and humane housing or treatment. The removal of these reports removes transparency, and protects abusers, not the animals.”
Cary Moran, Pike County Humane Society

BY Erika Norton

— The U.S. Department of Agriculture removed a large online database of animal welfare records last month, causing an outcry from national and local animal rights advocacy groups, as well as numerous lawmakers.

Local humane societies have expressed their concern over the database removal. Over the past decade, animal welfare has made many great strides with respect to awareness, education, and legislation, including protections and penalties for animal cruelty, according to Cary Moran of the Pike County Humane Society in Milford, Pa. But the removal of these inspection reports sets animal welfare backward.

“These are some of the most vulnerable animals, as they are in the hands of large corporations, factory farms and commercial breeding facilities where the bottom line dictates the welfare of the animals,” said Moran, the director of marketing and fund raising at the humane society. “They become more disposable as a mass commodity and therefore less likely to receive needed veterinary care and humane housing or treatment. The removal of these reports removes transparency, and protects abusers, not the animals.”

While she is unaware of the Pike County Humane Society’s use of these online records in the past, Moran said that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be helpful to have in the future should any of animal cruelty or illegal activity occur in Pike County.

USDA cites privacy lawsIn a statement, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees these records, cited privacy laws and pending court rulings for the decision to remove the records, which they say was made after “a comprehensive review of the information it posts on its website for the general public to view.” They also said that this information could still be obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which can take months to be processed.

While some of the records have recently been restored due to this outcry, animal rights advocates and lawmakers have expressed their concern over how this will affect the accountability and enforcement of animal cruelty laws nationwide. Animal-protection and public health advocacy groups — including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and five other groups, filed a lawsuit to compel the USDA to restore all of the online animal welfare records.

Soon after, 119 members of Congress signed a letter urging the USDA to reinstate public access to the scrubbed documents. Eighteen senators, including New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, and New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, sent a letter to Acting Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Michael Young, while 101 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to President Donald Trump, including Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino, New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey and New Jersey Congressmen Josh Gottheimer.

Support for the decisionHowever, a animal enterprise advocacy organization, Cavalry Group, has applauded the decision to remove the online records, going as far as to say they should not be available through FOIA requests either.

In a statement, president of the group Mindy Patterson said that for the last eight years, the USDA has been releasing “confidential and un-adjudicated information to animal rights extremists and activist organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) knowing that the information would be used wrongfully against USDA licensees with the intent to run them out of business.”

According to Patterson, animal rights groups have used online licensees’ information to make fraudulent claims and anonymous tips to authorities, and terrorize law abiding American families whose livelihood involves exhibiting, breeding, transporting, or selling animals.

Patterson went on to say that the USDA has been “infiltrated by animal rights extremists who, attempted to change the culture within the USDA-APHIS from one that is supportive of animal enterprise to one that aggressively bullies and harasses law abiding animal businesses with the ultimate goal of running them out of business.”

Humane societies respondOn the other hand,Suzyn Barron, president of the Warwick Valley Humane Society in Orange County, N.Y., said all animal advocacy groups should come out against the USDA's decision. The public has a right to know who is neglecting and abusing animals, whether in laboratories, breeders, circuses, zoos or any other animal-handling facilities, she said.

“There is a heightened awareness of the abuse these captive animals are subjected to and people should be able to access this information in order to make informed decisions, such as whether to buy from that breeder, buy from the retail stores that sell fur, or use products that have been tested on animals, or support the types of circuses, zoos and aquariums who routinely cause animal to suffer,” said Barron. “If the inspections are mandatory, then the reports should be accessible to all of us."

The database included inspection reports, research facility annual reports, and lists of those licensed and registered in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.

The online records were used by animal welfare advocates to monitor government regulation of animal treatment at circuses, scientific labs, zoos, aquariums, and commercial breeding facilities for dogs, cats and horses.

Journalists have also used the documents to expose violations at universities.

Barron said that while she has not used the USDA database, she understands the importance of online records, and has consulted the inspection reports posted online by the state Agriculture and Markets department for suspected animal cruelty cases which are their jurisdiction.

At the Blooming Grove Humane Society in Orange County, board member Carol Egan said they also haven’t used the national reports, but they have used the local Orange County Animal Abuser registry. At the moment, there are only three animal abuse offenders in the database.

“There isn't much in it yet,” Egan admitted. "But as people get added to the database, it really will be a valuable tool for those of us who are trying to place animals with the right people.”

She said it's unfortunate that the USDA removed an option for those who fight animal abuse daily to go to a central location and see a history of violations. While Egan noted that she is only one board member, she doesn’t see the logic behind it, and called the decision “really disappointing.”

In Passaic County, N.J., West Milford Mayor Bettina Bieri, a long-term volunteer and health officer at the West Milford Animal Shelter Society (WMASS), said that while the WMASS also does not have a need for the USDA reports, the decision to remove them can result in a tremendous negative impact on the welfare of animals in circus, laboratory ,and breeding environments.

“As a nation we should be advocating, enforcing and improving animal welfare regulations, not weakening them,” Bieri said. “Far too much abuse, neglect and unnecessary suffering already exists. Weakening the reporting and its disclosure will only further diminish monitoring capabilities and corrective measures. Transparency in government has been diminished yet again.”

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