On Friday, February 3, 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture abruptly removed thousands of documents, research, and data once available to the public, law enforcement, and animal welfare agencies from its website.
The information that is no longer available was used by commercial pet breeders, animal researchers, and facilities such as zoos and aquariums, to ensure standards and protocols that protect the health and safety of animals. The guidelines in the Horse Protection Act (which protects horses from being hurt in shows) were also part of the USDA online purge.
In a statement released on its website, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said: "As a result of the comprehensive review, APHIS has implemented actions to remove certain personal information from documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. Going forward, APHIS will remove from its website inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication."
With the information now purged, the USDA and APHIS recommends that any person or organization seeking reports or data should apply for a Freedom of Information Act request.
The decision has outraged many, particularly those who protect the rights of animals. In a statement, PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo called the decision, a "shameful attempt to keep the public from knowing when and which laws and regulations have been violated. Public taxes fund these agencies and the public should not be kept the dark because the feds would rather shield abusers than hold them accountable."
John Goodwin, the senior director of The Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, tells petMD, "We rely on that data to put together our reports every year, to release various reports and studies to let consumers know about who some of the worst offenders are in the world of commercial dog breeding."
He adds, "Perhaps, most shocking, is that when the data was purged, the USDA did not take into consideration that law enforcement agencies in seven states relied on that information to enforce laws they have that say pet stores cannot acquire puppies from commercial breeders that have severe animal welfare violations." In short, this means that the worst violaters of puppy breeding could potentially get away with their unlawful practicies.
Goodwin says that it's of the utmost urgency to get the USDA to put the data back up on its website, since gathering information through the Freedom of Information Act can take a long time—up to a year in some instances. "In the cases of violating these pet store sourcing laws, the statute of limitations will have come and gone by the time local agencies get the information," he says. "It’s going to help no one except people who have hurt animals, gotten caught, and don’t want the world to know."
As organizations like The Humane Society, as well as all animal-related industries who want to remain up to legal standards push for the USDA to reverse their decision, Goodwin says that concerned citizens can send a call to action online. In addition, individuals can write and call their representatives and senators urging them to act on this matter.
Until the problem is rectified, Goodwin says that The Humane Society will spend "every minute of every waking day working on this issue."
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