Late last week, the Department of Agriculture quietly scrubbed thousands of public records about animal abuse from its website, a move that's left animal rights groups and open-government advocates fuming.
The records included inspection reports related to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Horse Protection Act (HPA). The files are used by animal welfare groups to audit how well the USDA enforced these laws, but were also useful for researchers and the public seeking information about specific businesses. The Humane Society of the United States, for example, used the database to create its annual list of the worst puppy mills in America.
"Fundamentally, all this does is serve the purposes of people who have animals welfare violations, got caught, and don't want the general public to know," said John Goodwin, the HSUS's senior director of the Stop Puppy Mills campaign.
Now, the only way to access those records is by filing a Freedom of Information Act request to the USDA. The database could be used by the public to check things like whether a dog breeder had been charged with animal cruelty, or if a circus coming to town had ever had an animal escape. In these circumstances, a FOIA request—which can take months, or even years, to fulfill and can be costly—isn't practical.
And the USDA hasn't been completely transparent about why the documents were taken down at all.
An example of an inspection report that had previously been available online. Image: HSUS
The Trump administration has left many concerned about a lack of transparency, leading this decision to gain even further scrutiny. But a USDA spokesperson told me the decision came from a review that began long before the businessman and reality television personality came into office.
"The review was in place prior to the change of administration," Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), told me via email.
Espinosa referenced an official statement from USDA that suggested the removal was in response to a court decision having to do with privacy, though she would not provide further details.
"Courts are continuously issuing decisions that provide agencies with guidance on interpreting and applying laws applicable to the release of information to the public by the Federal government," the statement reads. "APHIS, with the support from the Office of the General Counsel, continuously monitors these sources of information and refinements to APHIS' practices are made accordingly."
The records removed included inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records related to animal welfare laws. Without a public database, it makes it much more difficult for special interest groups and the general public to keep tabs on how well these laws are being enforced. It also throws a wrench in some state laws, which require pet stores to ensure their breeders have no animal welfare violations.
Delcianna Winders, the academic fellow at Harvard University's Animal Law & Policy Program, told me over the phone that the documents in the database were already redacted to remove private information such as signature and contact information. Winder calls the government's explanation for why they were removed from the USDA's website "Orwellian" and has filed a FOIA request for all the communication around this decision to try to find out precisely what prompted the removal.
"This is a really loud signal that the assault on transparency isn't just about hot topics like climate change," said Winders, "but even something we all agree on, that's pretty innocuous, like animal welfare."