The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) is taking the USDA to court for not releasing animal welfare records requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). According to the ASPCA, in February 2017, the USDA abruptly removed thousands of documents related to the inspection of facilities licensed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), including zoos and commercial dog breeders. These inspection and enforcement records had been available to the public in a searchable online database for years, and their removal made it impossible for the public to know which facilities were operating in violation of federal animal protection laws.
While the USDA has publicly asserted that these records are still obtainable through the FOIA process, the ASPCA says the USDA continues to suppress critical inspection and enforcement information. Citing privacy concerns, the agency now claims that the requested records−many of which were previously accessible on the agency’s website−are exempt from disclosure, and records the ASPCA has received as a result of FOIA requests are heavily redacted with all relevant information, including breeder names, addresses, federal license numbers, inspection dates, and in some cases the entire substance of the inspection reports, completely blacked out. Furthermore, the USDA’s backlog for FOIA requests continues to grow, resulting in crippling wait times.
“The USDA’s delays and deliberate omissions in making these records accessible severely hamper our efforts to advocate for dogs languishing in deplorable puppy mills,” said Matt Bershadker, President and CEO of the ASPCA. “The ASPCA’s lawsuit is crucial to preserve the FOIA process and gain access to these government records, which is critical to protecting animal welfare.”
The ASPCA says in addition to educating the public on the inhumane conditions commonly found at USDA-licensed breeding facilities, the inspection reports were a vital tool in passing and enforcing laws to better protect breeding dogs. Now, states can no longer rely on the database to enforce existing laws prohibiting pet stores from selling animals raised by breeders with AWA violations.
“The USDA is choosing to protect those who profit from animal suffering over the animals themselves,” said Robert Hensley, Legal Advocacy Senior Counsel for the ASPCA.
The ASPCA recently unveiled a new anti-puppy mill initiative, Barred From Love, urging the public to speak out against the cruel commercial dog breeding industry. The #BarredFromLove campaign encourages dog lovers to adopt from a local shelter or rescue group or learn how to identify a responsible dog breeder.