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NEWS: USDA REMOVES ANIMAL WELFARE DOCUMENTS FROM WEBSITE — Animal Folks joins legal actions against the USDA
"The animals lose when data is hidden," says Animal Folks Founder and Executive Director. "By removing animal welfare documents from the APHIS website, the USDA has made it difficult to obtain timely information about Animal Welfare Act (AWA) licensees, including dog breeders, zoos, research labs, and other regulated entities. Without access to the online databases, the public cannot easily see what violations are cited or if animals are being harmed at the facilities."
UPDATE: On March 29, 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a motion to restore the USDA animal welfare documents for public viewing. Animal Folks is part of a coalition, led by ALDF, that moved for this preliminary injunction asking for a court order that would bring federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) databases back online.
On February 22, 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a lawsuit against the USDA, arguing that removal of online animal welfare records violates the Freedom of Information Act and the Administative Procedure Act. Animal Folks is a plaintiff in this lawsuit against the USDA.
ACTION ALERT: Your voice needed. See contact links below.
On February 3, 2017, the USDA abruptly removed animal welfare documents from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website. These documents include inspection reports (such as for dog breeding facilities), regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), research facility annual reports, enforcement records (such as pre-litigation settlement agreements and administrative complaints), and other materials.
Numerous organizations, agencies, journalists and citizens have accessed this data for years in order to protect animals, report findings, and hold abusers accountable.
Animal Folks Minnesota-Legislative Action (AFMN) has used these documents when lobbying at the State Capitol for animal protection bills as well as when testifying in MN counties and cities in support of local ordinances that protect animals.
Animal Folks (our research arm) has also used these documents when filing complaints with local law enforcement against dog breeders, pet stores, or other entities suspected of animal cruelty. The documents are also used when filing complaints with the USDA to request revocation of a breeder's license, enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act or other related noncompliance issues.
Freedom of Information Act: FOIA
The USDA stated these documents will still be available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - though additional information may be redacted, we assume. Animal Folks frequently makes data requests through FOIA; however, the data often takes many months to receive. Some requests have even taken over a year.
Having data easily accessible online allows us to file complaints in a timely manner, which protects animals; it also allows us and others to raise awareness about immediate animal welfare issues, and monitor enforcement actions (good or bad) conducted by the USDA.
"Long delays in processing federal FOIA requests already hinder the public and journalists in obtaining information that's essential to ensuring that government is truly working for the people," says Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, as quoted in National Geographic. "Anyone concerned about responsible and transparent government should be alarmed by the USDA's action." We agree.
Update: Editor's Note and USDA response
On February 7, the USDA released a statement (Editor's Note) attempting to clarify its original announcement. The USDA claims their internal discussion about this decision started in 2016. This note also stated: "These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting."
Animal Folks spoke with two individuals at the USDA about the agency's decision to remove the online information. They cited privacy concerns as the reason (justification) for the removal. Over a year ago, they claim, the Department of Justice asked that the agency review their online data to see if it meets the federal Privacy Act, and, they claim, current litigation involving the USDA also played a role in their decision.
We asked the USDA for the specific sections in the Privacy Act and the litigation (if public) that provoked their "data removal" decision. The information was not provided. Animal Folks will FOIA it.
NOTE: Matt Herrick, a former USDA Communications Director, Senior Advisor, tweeted: "Decision by usda 2 remove animal abuse records not requred. Totally subjective. Same option given 2 past admin. We refused. #transparency."
UPDATE: The Washington Post reported that a horse lawsuit (involving soring) may have prompted the USDA's decision to remove animal welfare reports from the APHIS website.
UPDATE: On February 17, 2017, the USDA announced that they were re-posting on their website some documents from certain Federal research facilities.
The USDA stated their decision did not require a public hearing or public input; however, they are accepting comments.
We urge you to email and/or call the USDA at the contacts below to express your concern about the removal of animal welfare data from the APHIS website and ask that the decision be reversed. The transparency of governmental decisions and actions, the timeliness of data, and the welfare of animals must be considered and take priority.
We urge you to also contact your U.S. Senators and U.S. House Representative. Express your concern and ask that they contact the USDA to review and reverse its decision to remove animal welfare documents from the APHIS website.
Thank you for your action.
ANNOUNCEMENT: ARTICLES AND OPINIONS
This action has attracted significant attention throughout the nation. Below are a few articles and comments:
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