A group of animal welfare organizations have sued the USDA in an effort to get the department to repost thousands of pages of animal welfare inspection reports that were removed from an online database February 3.
Filed Monday in a Washington, D.C. federal court, the suit accuses the USDA of violating a section of the Freedom of Information Act requiring government agencies to electronically post documents that have already been released publicly, or which will likely be the subject of FOIA requests.
The plaintiffs — including PETA, an animal law expert at Harvard University, the Beagle Freedom Project, and others — say the inspection reports are of vital public interest, and have been relied on to help advocacy groups expose animal cruelty.
While not mentioned in the complaint, some animal welfare groups believe the USDA scrubbed the records after two Texas attorneys sued the department in 2016 over inspection reports revealing that their Tennessee walking horses had been "sored" — a painful method to ensure a horse's high-stepping gait.
First reported by the Washington Post February 9, the attorneys, Lee and Mike McGartland, were identified as "violators" by the USDA for repeated soring incidents — violations that appeared in the department's online database. The Post reported that "the McGartlands sued, arguing that the enforcement program denies due process to those accused of violations and breaks privacy laws by publishing personal information."
Department spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said last week that, "These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting."
And the USDA also claimed, in a weird statement posted on the the department's website February 3, that the decision to remove the records was "based on our commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders' informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals."
The Animal Welfare Institute, which is not a plaintiff in the FOIA lawsuit, doesn't buy that explanation. In a statement last week, AWI President Cathy Liss said:
"The USDA claims that it purged these crucial records ‘based on [its] commitment to being transparent. This isn’t an abundance of caution. It is capitulation to industry — a longstanding pattern for this department. Additionally, the USDA removed the records, despite not yet filing a reply to the lawsuit, which is currently in mediation. We can only imagine how much further the USDA will buckle if mediation ends this litigation.”
The Animal Welfare Institute had already sounded an alarm in December over the USDA's seemingly industry-friendly actions in a complaint against a lab monkey importer. In that case, the USDA filed a motion to redact portions of a complaint against the importer, SNBL, whose negligence, according to the department, has led to the gruesome deaths of 38 monkeys since 2010.
The AWI also noted that the Foundation for the Advancement and Support of the Tennessee Walking Horse have been fundraising to support the McGartlands' suit. The AWI has launched a campaign of its own, asking the public to email the USDA and demand the inspection reports be reposted.
As with the SNBL case, publicly available animal welfare inspection reports are crucial to monitor public and private facilities in Texas, like San Antonio's Southwest National Primate Research Center, which has an extensive history of Animal Welfare Act violations.
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Katie Jarl, Texas senior state director of the Humane Society of the United States, told the Houston Press in an email:
“The Humane Society of the United States, along with many other animal welfare organizations, regularly rely on these public records to uncover abuse by the puppy mill industry, the exotic animal industry, the animal research industry and the 'big lick' Tennessee Walking Horse industry. This data purge benefits no one except for people who have abused animals, gotten caught, and don’t want anyone to know what they did.”
Meanwhile, PETA has already published thousands of the purged documents, which were obtained by an Arizona-based advocate Russ Kick.
It's scary to think that USDA would bow to industry pressure, especially if the industry in question includes people who chemically burn their horses. This is bad news for the public, and bad news for the animals, who need all the help they can get.