After removing thousands of vital animal welfare records from the USDA website earlier this year, the agency announced last week it had restored many of the data. But the announcement, says animal rights organizations, is a veiled gesture, providing little to address the concerns of groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
“This new public search tool is still virtually unusable in many cases, as the USDA has made it impossible to search for records from some of the worst abusers by concealing their identities,” Delcianna J. Winders, the PETA Foundation's vice president and deputy general counsel said in a statement. “Alarmingly, the agency has also just announced that it will not put its enforcement actions back online. At a time when government transparency and public scrutiny are essential, PETA will pursue our lawsuit to get all the records fully restored, which the USDA is required by law to do.”
According to HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, the move was clearly just intended “to give the impression to lawmakers and others concerned about its massive information take-down that it had remedied the problem,” he wrote on his blog. But the animal welfare group leader contends, “nothing could be further from the truth.”
Among the missing data are inspection reports for captive wild animal exhibitors and individuals, records that detail violations of the Horse Protection Act, a law that protects horses from being injured to exaggerate their gait. Puppy mill violations, says the HSUS, still aren’t linked to the names or identities of those violating rules. “Most of the puppy mill inspection reports merely list violations, with the details on the licensee’s identity and location blacked out. This makes the information useless. You have to have the name and the violation in order to understand what’s happening at the mills on the ground,” wrote Pacelle.
The USDA maintains that its policy upholds privacy rights of those organizations and individuals who’ve violated animal welfare laws. But the limited access makes it virtually impossible for animal welfare organizations and individuals to assess the worst offenders.
“The USDA is applying a standard here that’s not in evidence in any other domain in which people are asked to adhere to the law,” says Pacelle. “Lawmakers, animal protection groups, and other citizens shouldn’t be bamboozled by this feeble attempt to say the data dump issue has been settled or to claim that privacy concerns trump the public’s right to know about inspection activities for a federally funded program.”
Last week, a federal district court judge in California agreed to dismiss a case against the USDA, ruling against animal rights advocates who sued the agency in an effort to have the animal welfare records restored.
The judge said courts are free to order the agency to produce the documents as they relate to specific court cases (using the Freedom of Information Act), but said it can’t order the agency to release all of the animal welfare records.
“The fractured, disconnected information now on the USDA’s Animal Care website is still unusable, and we are no closer to resolving this mess now than we were months ago, when the USDA first yanked its search tool overnight and without any compelling justification,” Pacelle notes.
According to PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet, the group is taking legal measures against the agency and refutes the USDA's suggestion "that it's sufficient for the agency to provide records in response to FOIA requests, a process that can take months or even years."
According to the USDA's most recent annual FOIA report, a simple FOIA request can take more than two years to process. An expedited request can take more than five months.
"These inspection reports, research facility reports, and other records, the complaint explains, are essential for PETA's work to expose cruelty to animals and to monitor the USDA's enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA)," Peet says. "The removal of the records also jeopardizes state and local laws prohibiting sales of dogs by businesses with AWA violations."
“By continuing this practice," Pacelle writes, "the USDA is not only defying Congress, but also the customs and procedures that govern enforcement activity of almost every type in our country.”
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