Animal lovers across the country were shocked when last week, without notice, the USDA pulled down all animal welfare information, including its database, from the site. After being up for a decade, the database which served as the public’s eyes into 9,000 facilities, including commercial breeders (commonly known as puppy mills), research labs, circuses and zoos was removed from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) site. Before the takedown, anyone could view breeders’ information, to see what, if any, violations they had.
“It makes it nearly impossible to enforce current laws that prohibit the retail sale of dogs and cats from breeders who have been cited for certain federal violations, and it gives the public no way of knowing, when they walk into most pet stores, anything about the origins of the pets for sale” Elizabeth Oreck, the national manager of puppy mill initiatives at Best Friends Animal Society, tells This Dog’s Life.
Citing privacy concerns APHIS wrote the information was removed “based on our commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.”
But animal advocates and the public cried foul. Many claimed the information shared on the database didn’t include private details, while others question the time of the database removal, believing the Trump administration was behind it.
The agency denies the latter accusation, stating on its website, “The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. In 2016, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records.”
But Matthew Herrick, the spokesperson for former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, says that just isn’t the case, tweeting:
“Same option given 2 past admin. We refused. #transparency.”
— Matt Herrick (@mattmherrick) February 5, 2017
Deborah Howard of Companion Animal Protection Society also isn’t buying it. “A few months ago they overhauled the entire database, hired contractor and gave it a fresh look,” she says. “Why would they invest money if they were going to take down?”
The shift in policy could have to do with Brian Klippenstein, one of Trump’s top advisors and founder of Protect the Harvest, an organization that has fought against puppy-mill regulations and looks to inform “businesses and decision-makers about the threats posed by animal rights groups.”
“APHIS’s decision to suppress information is unacceptable but hardly out of character for the agency as the USDA is incredibly timid around threats from the animal businesses they regulate and they fold to these special interests at the least provocation,” says Deborah Dubow Press, director of regulatory affairs for the ASPCA. “However, we are certainly on high alert that this could be a politically motivated shift given this administration’s anti-regulation leanings.”
The current solution APHIS is offering is to submit a FOIA request for information, but for many, this won’t do. Some animal advocates state they haven’t received information after a year. (APHIS says they provide information within 20 days.)
Plenty of people have taken to social media to express their outrage, with the AltUSDA Twitter page asking people to tweet to their representatives a picture of their dog and use the hashtags #AnimalWelfare and #NoUSDAblackout.
But what else can be done? How can animal lovers help get the animal welfare database back up?
First, it is important to figure out who your representative is. This is super easy to do. Just text 520-200-2223 your zip code. You’ll get a text back with everyone’s contact information. And yes, it works — we tried it.
We also talked to major animal welfare organizations to see what they are doing, along with what we can do.
All actions take less than 5 minutes, but could prove to be a lifesaver for the voiceless.
The Humane Society of the United States
What they are doing: The HSUS is pursuing legal action, claiming that after suing the USDA in 2005, this is in violation of the terms agreed upon in 2009.
“The agency’s precipitous decision to purge virtually all AWA and HPA enforcement documentation – just two weeks after President Trump assumed office — violates the plain terms of the settlement and a federal court order,” writes president Wayne Pacelle. “It also runs contrary to Congressional provisions in 1996 and 2016 designed to increase transparency and electronic access to information.”
HSUS told This Dog’s Life that without the database, it won’t be able to publish its annual Horrible 100 puppy mill report. “In 2016, the USDA revoked the licenses of nine puppy mills, most of which The HSUS had identified in our annual Horrible Hundred reports, including breeders who were repeatedly found with injured or dead dogs or puppies on their properties,” Samantha Miller, the public information officer at HSUS, tells This Dog’s Life. “Without public inspection records, The HSUS and other animal protection groups would have great difficulty obtaining the information we needed to press for strong enforcement.”
How we can help: This Dog’s Life readers can take action by using The HSUS’ online form to send a message to the USDA, letting the agency know it should not withhold information. The form can be found here.
Companion Animal Protection Society
What they are doing: As the only organization that acts as the watchdog to the USDA, CAPS will continue its undercover reporting, investigations and pushing the agency for more transparency.
The agency also suggested some other quick things animal lovers can do. Besides contacting your representative, Howard of CAPS said to see if your representative is on the government oversight and reform committee, a group responsible for government agencies. If so, reach out to the person and ask them to hold a hearing about the database being taken down. You can use the same language in the petition, but add the hearing request. Not sure if your representative is part of the group? You can find out here.
Also, keep in mind all these representatives have local offices. Stop by and talk to their aides about this issue.
Best Friends Animal Society
What they are doing: They too are working on reinstating the database and encouraging animal lovers to contact their representatives in Congress. ”The Secretary of Agriculture appointee has not yet been confirmed, so it’s very important that members of Congress, especially the Senate, hear from their constituents on this issue,” Oreck says.
How we can help: Best Friends Animal Society urges us to call the USDA at 844 820-2234 and tell them to put the database back up. “Each one of us has a voice and we can use the power of that voice to make a better world for animals and humans alike,” says Oreck.
What they are doing: “Last month, the ASPCA made a public request to Secretary of Agriculture Designee Sonny Perdue, asking him to prioritize the well-being of animals in need,” Press of the ASPCA says. The agency is hoping the new leadership will once again make the USDA information easily accessible to protect “thousands of animals behind the walls of AWA-regulated facilities.”
How we can help: Besides contacting representative, the ASPCA recommends people sign up to its Advocacy Brigade to stay informed on any new developments. The organization also has a petition to urge the USDA to “to live up to its humane responsibilities” and republish the information.