U.S. Government Gets Sued For Hiding Animal Welfare Records

"The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers."

People are trying to make sure no one gets away with hurting animals - and a lawsuit filed Monday against a U.S. government agency is fighting back against the sudden purging of animal welfare information from a government website.

Inspection reports and annual reports of roughly 9,000 animal facilities across the country - which have been openly available to the public for a decade - were scrubbed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website earlier this month, claiming there were privacy concerns.

The USDA is in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA). The recently disappeared reports include information about SeaWorld, dog breeders and puppy mills, zoos, circuses (including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) and taxpayer-funded animal testing labs, among others. Animal welfare groups that used those reports to stand up for animals were shaken by the sudden removal.

USDA website after animal welfare reports were removed
Screenshot taken by The Dodo on February 3 of where the USDA data used to be | The Dodo

"We've been the USDA's watchdog for 20 years," Deborah Howard, president of the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), told The Dodo recently, explaining that CAPS investigators use the USDA reports to show which pet shops are sourcing their dogs from puppy mills. "We compare our findings to the inspectors. If we didn't have those reports, we wouldn't be able to do our inspections."

The blackout of the information isn't just inconvenient for watchdogs like CAPS - the just-filed lawsuit claims that the removal of the information is actually illegal under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), since all citizens should be allowed to access that information for the good of animals.

"Our lawsuit seeks to compel the USDA to reinstate the records, which it had no right to remove from its website in the first place," Delcianna Winders, an animal law & policy fellow at Harvard University, said in a press release provided to The Dodo. "The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny."

Winders joins a coalition of animal welfare groups that came together to sue the USDA. PETA, the Beagle Freedom Project, Born Free USA, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and public health advocacy group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine all signed up to fight for transparency.

USDA inspection report on an animal research facility
A screenshot of a USDA inspection report downloaded by Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project (WCWP), earlier this month | Justin Goodman/WCWP

The USDA says that people can file a request for the information, but heavy delays make the work of so many animal welfare groups and investigative journalists nearly impossible. "The lawsuit 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," a press release issued by PETA reads. "According to the USDA's most recent annual FOIA report, it can take as long as 836 days - i.e., more than two years - to process a 'simple' FOIA request and up to 157 days for an expedited one."

"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," Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, told The Dodo. "The inspection reports, lists of licensees, and data on Animal Welfare Act violations are the product of an enforcement system that is funded with taxpayer money, and therefore taxpayers have a right to access the information."

USDA annual report on an animal research facility
A screenshot of a USDA annual report downloaded by Justin Goodman, vice president of White Coat Waste Project (WCWP), earlier this month | Justin Goodman/WCWP

Animal lovers have been voicing their concerns about how the information purge will impact animals currently in facilities like puppy mills and laboratories. Concerned citizens even tweeted photos of their pets to their representatives to urge the government to fight for transparency when it comes to animal welfare information.

"[The] USDA'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," Roberts said. "Born Free USA is proud to join with the other organizations on this lawsuit as we demand a return to rightful government transparency."

The USDA declined The Dodo's request for comment because of the pending litigation.