Following Trump Administration takeover, the USDA removed its online database of animal abuse violations.
A few months ago, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture removed an online database of animal abuse records. National Geographic filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for records explaining the decision to take down the database offline. The response they finally received consisted of 1,771 blacked-out pages.
“The lack of transparency is as astounding as it is bewildering” says Kate Dylewsky, from the animal welfare nonprofit Born Free USA. The blacked-out records only cover Feb. 23 through March 10 and were sent by the USDA’s Office of General Counsel, which provides the department with legal services.
The FOIA officer cited the documents could not be released because they detail ongoing litigation. This is a common excuse used to withhold information, and does not address the question regarding why the database was taken offline in the first place— just weeks following the Trump Administration’s takeover.
Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, points out “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.” The records documented violations of the Animal Welfare Act, such as abuse and mistreatment in sub-standard roadside zoos, puppy mills, by circus animal trainers and at horse racetracks.
“While these bases may be legitimate for deleting portions of the records at issue, they absolutely cannot be used to withhold 1,771 entire pages,” said Delcianna Winders, of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Program. She is currently involved in a lawsuit against the USDA.
The FOIA said they will release the remaining documents “in batches on a monthly basis”. They went further to say that the database records will still be available, but only by request through the Freedom of Information Act. Formerly, anyone could access the documents by simply searching for a name in the online database.
“The citizens of the United States deserve to see that information,” says Dan Ashe, head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the USDA’s confusing actions are “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.”
Most importantly, Tanya Espinosa from the USDA-APHIS stated this will not change the fight for humane treatment of animals, “We will continue to enforce the regulations and standards as they are written.”