By Miriam Raftery
February 11, 2017 (Washington D.C.) – Information on Animal Welfare Act violations has been taken down off the Department of Agriculture’s website under the Trump administration. The action has outraged animal rights activists and consumers, who rely on the information to check complaints of animal abuse including puppy mills, horse racing, zoos, circuses, laboratories and other facilities.
“Countless cases of animal cruelty have been removed, and the actions and identities of abusive companies have been hidden. Citizens in our country deserve more transparency and accountability, not less,” says Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, Newsweek reports.
But now the Humane Society of the U.S. has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice reminding the government that under a 2009 legal settlement with the Humane Society, USDA had agreed to make some of the records public that have since been removed off its public database. But the suit only applies to records from 2009 to 2013.
The Humane Society’s lawyers have threatened to exercise their rights under the settlement to ask a judge to reopen the legal case if the matter is not resolved within 30 days. The suit was brought in 2005 to force release of records on animals used for testing in biomedical research labs.
The animal protection group also contends that removing the reports of animal abuse violates the federal Freedom of Information Act, since FOIA requires agencies to make information available for public inspection by electronic means. That could apply to all of the scrubbed records, arguably.
According to the USDA, the database was removed due to a need to maintain “privacy rights of individual.” The agency claims the records were removed following a year-long review. It claims people can still request documents through FOIA, but that’s a lengthy process that can take months or even years.
Animal researchers also object to removal of the data. “This change…makes it more time consuming, although not impossible, for organizations like FBR to analyze trends in animal use in research,” Matthew Bily, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, said in a prepared statement. The group supports use of animals for research purposes.
The USDA transition team is reportedly being led by Brian Klippenstein, who heads up Protect the Harvest. On its website, the organization states that its goals include information “consumers, businesses and decision’ makers about the threats posed by animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists,” raising the question of whether there was a political motivation to hide data from the public.
Activist groups have urged consumers to send photos of their pets to their Congressional and Senate representatives asking that the USDA restore the information on animal welfare that was removed, tweeting images with the hashtag #NoUSDAblackout. (Read more.) Many have flooded Congressional offices with photos of dogs, cats and other companion animals, along with stories about how their pets were rescued from puppy mills, hoarders or other abusive situations. The public is asking that the USDA not put privacy over the welfare of animals.