Photo: The Humane Society of the United States
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) removed Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Horse Protection Act (HPA) violation records from its website earlier this month. These documents have been publically available online for years and have played a valuable role in reducing animal cruelty and in some cases, led to the abolishment of unjust practices and facilities. After the abrupt removal, inquisitors must now file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain violation documents, which could take months.
Why have the records been removed? And who is behind the cover-up? The APHIS news briefing cites privacy concerns and a related lawsuit, but animal rights industry experts question the true motives.
“The USDA is being purposefully circumspect by hiding their reasoning and that leaves everyone thinking the worst,” Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, told Planet Experts.
“The very documents removed are the ones that allow the public and non-profits to figure out what violations have been uncovered, identify repeat offenders, assess whether they have been remedied and where problems really are,” explained Roberts.
These are publically registered laboratories, horse shows, zoos, circuses and breeders that have open licenses to do their activities, he continued. “I think the privacy claim is a sham.”
John Goodwin, Senior Director of the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, seconded Roberts’ sentiments and shared a story about an affiliate who attended a USDA meeting for commercial dog breeders in the Midwest last summer. The USDA spokesperson told breeders that if they were concerned about their addresses being on these reports they could simply get a PO box.
“If you don’t want the public to know what you are doing you shouldn’t be involved in a business that you have to get a USDA license for; or better yet, keep a clean record,” argued Goodwin.
“This action benefits no one except for people who hurt animals, got caught and don’t want anyone to know about it.”
The Money Behind Removal
There’s big money in breeding high pedigree mammals and breeders often attempt to beget animals with specific traits to increase their profits. In 2013, the Performance Show Horse Association estimated that American horse shows alone generated $11 billion annually.
Whether there is a direct connection between the removal of AWA and HPA violation data from the USDA website and select beneficiaries is uncertain; however, there are some unsettling facts that point to special interest group involvement.
First off, Trump selected Brian Klippenstein, puppy mill advocate, staunch opponent of the HSUS and director of Protect the Harvest, as the USDA transition leader. Protect the Harvest represents the very organizations that the AWA and HPA regulate and, according to the HSUS, Klippenstein and his cronies have been pushing to make it harder for animal rights activists to access violation records for years. Additionally, the organization’s founder, Forest Lucas, invested hundreds of thousands into lobbying efforts that attempt to loosen restrictions and oversight of puppy mills.
The Walking Horse industry, which has been accused of numerous violations under the HPA and AWA, is also celebrating. Jeffrey Howard of The Walking Horse Report praised the removal by stating, “The violations statistics that the animal rights movement and HSUS have used to further their cause have been false and misleading statistics and are not violations. I commend the USDA for correcting this misinformation and protecting the privacy and rights of those parties involved.”
Several years ago, Mike and Lee McGartland, horse breeders and owners of Contender Farms, were accused of HPA violations at the 74th annual Red Carpet Show of the South for allegedly “soring” their Tennessee Walking Worse (TWH), The Royal Dollar. Soring, according to the HSUS, “involves the intentional infliction of pain to a horse’s legs or hooves in order to force the horse to perform an artificial, exaggerated gait,” which is desirable in TWH competitions.
The McGartland’s filed a lawsuit against the USDA claiming that they were not given due process before being accused and had their personal information compromised by being listed on the then public APHIS site for the violation. Although not stated on the USDA website, both Howard and animal rights protectors indicate that this case could be influential in the USDA’s decision to remove the violation data.
Let The Howl Be Herd
The move ignited resistance from animal rights advocates, journalists and even some animal-use industry members including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Petland and the Foundation for Biomedical Research.
“Without the records, pet stores run risk of violating laws,” said Goodwin. “How are they going to know if a breeder is showing them all violation reports?”
The lack of transparency also harms organizations that comply with the regulations and have clean records because stakeholders can’t assess those who are treating animals well from those who aren’t.
In an attempt to make the data public again, archivist Russ Kick, who anticipated the removal, shared thousands of the violation records on his website, The Memory Hole 2, and is asking those with additional information to send in reports to expand the database.
To combat the action and demand a reversal, the Humane Society threatened to reopen the 2009 HSUS v. USDA lawsuit, claiming that the removal breaches the previous agreement in which USDA was mandated to electronically release certain AWA violations each year. The HSUS gave the USDA 30 days to repost the data before taking further action. They also joined forces with Latham & Watkins legal group to prevent the “USDA transition team from cutting any sweetheart deals behind closed doors” in the soring lawsuit.
Other organizations haven’t been so patient.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Born Free USA joined several other groups in suing the USDA in an attempt to unearth the scrubbed records.
“The USDA data purge is an outrageous obstruction of the work that journalists, lawyers, animal advocates, and private citizens do in the interest of protecting animal welfare,” Born Free USA CEO Adam Roberts said in a statement. “SDA’s decision has now shielded the worst animal exhibitors, breeders, and researchers from the public eye, enabling them to violate federal law and perpetrate animal abuse in relative secrecy.”
How You Can Join The Pack
You can help protect animals from mistreatment and ensure transparency and accountability for animal-use industries by signing this petition to reverse the data purge and urge senators and state representatives to lean on the USDA to put the data back online, advised Goodwin.
On the bright side, the federal government’s recent attempts to dismantle transparency, equality and the environment are being met by strong resistance from civil society and the public. Every one of your phone calls, emails, donations and signatures is helping to keep America great. Please keep it up!