March 2017 | Animal Welfare Reports Removed from USDA Website
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Animal Welfare Reports Removed from USDA Website

Suzanne Bush - March 2017

For many historical reasons, February 3 is a date of…what…infamy? Oddball events? Celebration? In 1959 it was the day the music died, when a plane crash claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and others in Iowa.  At the other end of the emotional spectrum in 1982 an Englishman, John Sharples, finished nearly 400 hours of disco dancing. In 1990 an athlete who defined resilience, Billy Shoemaker retired from horseracing at the age of 58, after an incredible career in the saddle, and 40,350 races.

And then in 2017, February 3 rolled around and the staid United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) deleted reports on animal welfare inspections and enforcement from its website. Animal welfare organizations relied on these reports for information on animal breeders and others that had been cited for abuse, or for violating laws like the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.

When the website deleted this information with no warning, consternation ensued. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has threatened to sue USDA-APHIS “to challenge this outrageous action that undermines longstanding consensus about public access to information concerning these laws, and frustrates state, local, and industry efforts to help enforce them.”

Caught Between Competing Legal Complaints

Tanya Espinosa, a Public Affairs Specialist with the USDA-APHIS, responded to several questions about the changes in the website via email. “The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy.” She says that these changes were in the works long before the inauguration of President Trump.  “In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website. While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy.”

Espinosa says that the changes are not necessarily permanent. However, the new administration is still trying to fill key cabinet posts, and as Pennsylvania Equestrian went to print, nominee, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, had not been confirmed.

Other Avenues for Retrieving Data

Espinosa says that individuals seeking specific inspection reports can request information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That is a time-consuming process, however, and is not always successful. Requests are handled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Federal Government receives tens of thousands of FOIA requests annually. While the agency receiving the request is required to acknowledge an individual’s inquiry within 20 days, an acknowledgement is not the same as production of the information requested. That might take months or even years.

She also says that information about individuals who are disqualified from participation in regulated activities is still available on the website. So, lists of people who have been accused of soring or other abuses of horses still appear on the website, along with the length of time they are prohibited from participating.

Ironically, Espinosa explains that the changes to the website were driven by a desire to improve transparency.