Editor’s Note: This story was updated on February 13 to reflect legal actions filed against the USDA.
Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These are the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the U.S.—including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.
These records have revealed many cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, incidents that, if the reports had not been publicly posted, would likely have remained hidden. This action plunges journalists, animal welfare organizations, and the public at large into the dark about animal welfare at facilities across the country. The records document violations of the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that regulates treatment of animals used for research and exhibition. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which has maintained the online database, cites privacy concerns as justification for the removal.
Anyone concerned about responsible and transparent government should be alarmed by the USDA's actions.
Critics question that reasoning. The agency has long redacted sensitive information from these records, and commercial facilities do not necessarily have the same right to privacy as private individuals. “The citizens of the United States deserve to see that information,” says Dan Ashe, head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the USDA's removal of records is “not in the interest of credible, legitimate animal care facilities. What [the action] does is it erodes public confidence, because when people see something like that, they're inclined, rightfully, to think that the government is trying to shield something from their view.”
Tanya Espinosa, spokesperson for USDA-APHIS, says that the decision to pull welfare reports from the website does not affect enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act: “We will continue to enforce the regulations and standards as they are written.”
Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, an animal advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is “shocked” by the purge. He says the documents shed light on cruelty in “substandard roadside zoos, shameful animal circuses, puppy breeding factories and more.” Often, the animals in these facilities may have visible wounds or cramped conditions or no access to water, according to Roberts. He says “the government's decision to make it harder to access this information further protects animal exploiters in the shroud of secrecy on which their nefarious activities thrive.”
From now on the documents will be accessible only via official requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA requests can take months to process. That’s far too long, Roberts says. When Born Free receives welfare complaints from concerned citizens, he says the organization has always checked USDA records to see if any complaints had already been made involving the facility or animal in question. Waiting months for a FOIA report for information that previously could be obtained with the click of a button “may mean prolonged suffering for an animal in need,” Roberts says.
In response, animal-rights groups have launched a counterattack. On February 6, the Humane Society of the United States initiated legal action against the USDA, arguing that the removal of records violates a 2009 settlement between the two parties. Other groups, including PETA, the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, and Born Free USA, have filed a joint lawsuit against the USDA, arguing that in removing this data, the department is in violation of FOIA and that the action hinders the groups’ ability to identify violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA has yet to respond to either legal action.
As the legal battle over the records heats up, the impact on journalism—and therefore the public’s awareness of animal suffering—will be keenly felt. “Long delays in processing federal FOIA requests already hinder the public and journalists in obtaining information that's essential to ensuring that government is truly working for the people,” says Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, based in Columbia, Missouri. The added burden of animal requests could slow FOIAs down even more.
“Access to public data and documents should not be a partisan political issue,” Haddix says. “Anyone concerned about responsible and transparent government should be alarmed by the USDA's actions.”
Ashe and others are urging the USDA to reconsider. Reporting on animal welfare violations has played a significant role in ending numerous incidents of animal suffering.
TWO DECADES OF ABUSE AT ROADSIDE ZOO
In March 2016, Mother Jones published “Welcome to the Jungle,” a story exposing 20 years of abuse of animals at DEW Haven, a family-run, roadside zoo outside Mount Haven, Maine. The zoo was already in the national spotlight—as the setting for a popular Animal Planet reality show, Yankee Jungle.
The article exposed illegal importation of animals, poor sanitation, inadequate shelter, feces-ridden food, pens too small for movement, and premature death, as revealed in dozens of now offline USDA citations issued between 2004 and 2015. After Mother Jones brought its investigation to light, Animal Planet canceled the show.
“The USDA documents provided such a strong spine of documentary evidence right out of the gate,” says James West, who wrote the story. He explains that it would have been “near impossible to report” without access to these records. “These were completely rich, primary source evidence documents, full of information, which then led me to other leads. There’s names of people in here, there’s types of animals.”
Without them, he says, the public misses the facts, and people may not realize that “it’s very hard to get information from state and local enforcement agencies. The USDA [reports] are one of the only ways that journalists can have an immediate insight into people who may be running afoul of federal animal welfare law.”
DEW Haven’s doors are still open. Without the public database of USDA reports, it will be difficult to keep tabs on the practices at this facility—and nearly impossible to determine whether the USDA continues to monitor them at all.
GRUESOME ANIMAL EXPERIMENTS
A January 2015 New York Times investigation exposed the suffering of farm animals at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a USDA facility that ran experiments designed to make livestock meatier and more fertile. The story detailed numerous problematic practices, including an effort to develop “easy care” sheep, which involved allowing ewes to give birth unaided in open fields, resulting in newborns starving or freezing to death, or being ravaged by coyotes.
In gathering his material, investigative journalist Michael Moss relied heavily on USDA APHIS welfare records. Using dozens of APHIS case files on university and private-sector experiments, Moss revealed how the USDA has cracked down on third parties engaging in milder practices than it was performing in its own lab. Moss says his investigation was aided immensely by being able to use the agency's online database “without the burden and delay of using FOIA to show how aggressive the USDA could be on behalf of animals when it wanted to be.”
Moss’s work prompted the USDA to shut down all new experimental projects at the facility pending improvements to its welfare standards. The agency also highlighted a gaping loophole in the Animal Welfare Act: It exempts farm animals used in research experiments.
After the story ran, several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle introduced a bill to extend the Animal Welfare Act to farm animals being used in experiments. Tom Vilsack, then Secretary of Agriculture, ordered increased protections of the animals used at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and appointed the first-ever animal welfare ombudsman to oversee the welfare of animals at all USDA-run facilities.
Moss says the USDA’s taking down of its document database “is a significant blow not only to the public's ability to get information about the treatment of animals but also the agency's ability to convey the important work that it does.”
LAB MONKEY DEATHS BY DEHYDRATION
USDA APHIS documents have also detailed the mistreatment of animals used for research in several academic institutions. The Augusta Chronicle reported on a flurry of APHIS citations issued in 2012 to a research lab at Augusta University, then called Georgia Regents University. The lab was accused of keeping primates—highly social animals—in isolation, a violation of the Animal Welfare Act; of using expired pain medication on animals during testing; and of restricting its animals’ food intake. In 2013 APHIS cited the lab for using dogs for painful dental experiments and inflicting undue suffering resulting in death, following a Humane Society investigation. The APHIS document detailing the lab’s violation of the Animal Welfare Act was one of the thousands in the database.
Documents also exposed the mistreatment of primates at a Harvard University Medical School research facility. The APHIS citations—seven in all—were revealed in a 2012 story by The Harvard Crimson. The citations detailed the deaths of several primates owing to lack of water. In 2013 The Boston Globe reported that the 51-year-old facility was to be shut down. It closed its doors permanently on May 31, 2015.
In November 2016, reporting from USDA APHIS documents, The Daily Beast exposed the deaths of 38 primates at SNBL USA, a pharmaceutical research facility where monkeys confined in decrepit quarters died from dehydration, botched surgeries, and being pumped full of more drugs than their small bodies could handle.
RINGLING’S ELEPHANT MISTREATMENT
APHIS documents served as crucial primary evidence in a yearlong Mother Jones investigation of Ringling Bros. Circus’s allegedly horrific treatment of elephants. The 2011 investigation was one of the first to shed light on the plight of the animals, showing that elephants were kept for years in cramped living conditions and were whipped and chained by their handlers. Many elephants were found to have infected wounds and untreated diseases. The story prompted a public outcry and petitions calling for the elephants' removal from the circus. Ringling declared in 2016 that it would stop using touring elephants. But then, in January 2017, it announced that after 146 years, the circus would be shut down permanently.
Writer Deborah Nelson, also an associate professor of investigative journalism at the University of Maryland, says she used the online records to track pending and new inspections and complaints as she researched the story. “They allowed me to keep running watch on how animals were being treated and how the government was carrying out its mandate to protect them,” she says.
Nelson also relied on a FOIA lawsuit welfare groups had filed against the USDA to force release of public records on the elephants. “FOIA request is no substitute for direct public access,” Nelson says. “The FOIA process builds in delays and can be used to prevent release of information absent appeals and costly litigation.”
The burden of making public a trove of information on animal welfare—how animals are suffering nationwide, who the perpetrators are, and where there may be holes in current legislation—now largely falls to third parties. Mother Jones’s West, whose story about the roadside zoo relied heavily on the USDA APHIS database, points out how cumbersome a task this will be for nonprofit watchdog organizations: “They're cash-strapped and overworked, and it shouldn't be their responsibility to be the reservoir of public information. It’s the government’s role.”
AZA’s Dan Ashe sees the USDA’s actions as a blow to accountability. If these records aren’t made readily available, “you can only really reach one conclusion, and that is that the public's ability to hold these institutions accountable will be diminished.”
Born Free’s Roberts agrees.
“Transparency is vital to democracy, and the USDA should reverse course and reopen access to information online,” he says. “I assume they will—unless they have something to hide.”
Editor’s note: You can let the USDA know what you think of the changes by contacting them here.
Natasha Daly is an assistant editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter.