Federal authorities will no longer routinely publish key documents around enforcement of the Horse Protection Act in a push to ensure that personal information is not released to the general public.
Instead, those interested in reading documents such as inspection reports will have to seek them under the Freedom of Information Act. It is possible the released versions will contain redactions.
Welfare advocates and journalists have long relied on the material to monitor the standard of care for animals.
The move was swiftly condemned by Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
A raft of documents were removed from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) website late last week that dealt with the treatment of animals at zoos, research laboratories, dog breeding operations and the like.
The USDA said in a statement that its decision was guided by court rulings, privacy laws and materials regularly supplied by the Justice Department on such issues.
The new position, it said, reflected a commitment to transparency while at the same time maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the agriculture department, had therefore removed documents it posted on its website involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act that contained personal information.
“These documents include inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records (such as pre-litigation settlement agreements and administrative complaints) that have not received final adjudication.
“In addition,” it continued, “APHIS will review and redact, as necessary, the lists of licensees and registrants under the Animal Welfare Act, as well as lists of designated qualified persons licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations to ensure personal information is not released to the general public.”
Those seeking information regarding inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence, and enforcement records should submit a Freedom of Information Act request. If the same records were frequently requested via the Freedom of Information Act process, APHIS may post the appropriately redacted versions to its website.
Pacelle attacked the USDA’s decision, saying that inspection reports on some 9000 licensed facilities that used animals, including commercial dog breeding operators, Tennessee walking horse show participants, roadside zoos, animal research labs, and other operations regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act had been pulled from the department’s website.
He said the HSUS would challenge this “outrageous action” in court, saying it undermined longstanding consensus about public access to information concerning these laws. The USDA’s decision frustrated state, local, and industry efforts to help enforce them, he said.
He alleged the USDA’s move violated a settlement deal and a federal court order in a case the HSUS took in 2005, and settled four years later.
“It also runs contrary to Congressional provisions in 1996 and 2016 designed to increase transparency and electronic access to information.”
He continued: “There is more than just a principle of transparency and good government at stake here. These documents are essential to a wide range of matters of direct interest to The HSUS, dozens of other animal welfare groups, state and federal lawmakers and regulators, regulated businesses, and many other stakeholders who rely upon the records of a public agency.
“Like every federal agency, the USDA operates thanks to the generosity of taxpayers, and it must be accountable to them. The USDA is changing the equation for the worse for animals and the public with this action.”
Pacelle said the action was a second punch in the gut by the Trump administration to horse protection advocates fighting against soring abuse of horses within the walking horse industry.
“The new administration earlier froze a near-finalized USDA rule to crack down on the abusers (there’s a major movement in Congress to turn that around).
“The denial of real-time access to information about offenses committed under the HPA will frustrate efforts to show the extraordinary violation rates for horse show participants – a data set that has made it clear that this segment of the industry is openly, routinely defying federal law.
“What’s more, the wiping away of these records from the Internet will hurt the effort by legitimate horse owners to shun the abusers.
“Many walking horse enthusiasts and newcomers who do not sore their horses or approve of soring use this information as a resource to see who they should select or not select as a trainer, as a breeder, or as a co-owner of a horse, or while purchasing a horse.
“This withholding of information that the American public has a right to see appears to be an inside job at the USDA – with the head of the Trump transition team probably directing the show.
“You’d think that USDA would want the work of its field personnel to be examined and used by the public. But this action suggests a deliberate effort to bury its work and impede efforts to ensure the well-being of animals in numerous sectors.
“The HSUS will continue to pursue this matter until public access is fully restored.”