Q. What is the USDA’s Animal Abuser Registry?
A. For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) maintained an online database of records related to the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). These records included inspection reports from animal abusing industries, including laboratories, puppy mills, and circuses. The public could also download annual reports from laboratories, which contained basic statistical information about the number and species of animals used in research. When it was operational, the USDA Animal Abuser Registry was continually updated with new annual reports and inspection reports from facilities around the country. These inspection reports reflected the fact that there was a widespread pattern of laboratories and other facilities breaking federal law. These reports were a constant source of embarrassment and unfavorable press for research facilities and other industries that abuse animals. However, in February 2017, without any warning or notice, the USDA abruptly took this valuable trove of data offline.
Q. How did Beagle Freedom Project use the USDA Animal Abuser Registry?
A. BFP’s most fundamental mission is to help place animals in loving homes after their use in invasive research. We believe that every animal deserves the opportunity to experience life as a beloved member of an adoptive family, most especially those who were previously viewed as nothing more than a piece of laboratory equipment. To this end, our organization regularly reaches out to laboratories with offers of assistance to place “spent” research animals in loving homes, even if it has to be on a confidential basis. However, to identify the approximately 370 laboratories for our outreach efforts, we have used this USDA database. Going forward, we will have no way of knowing where dogs, cats and other animals are even being used in testing. These laboratories will now never receive our personal appeal offering assistance. Tragically, this means that dogs, cats and others will live and die in U.S. laboratories without anyone who cares about saving their lives even knowing they existed. This is a giant step backward.
Additionally, the USDA Animal Abuser Registry is useful for times that BFP finds itself in conflict with a laboratory that uses animals in testing. For example, many large dog and cat laboratories have publicly opposed common-sense legislation supported by BFP that would require research facilities to adopt out dogs and cats if they survive testing. BFP is also currently engaged in lawsuits against several large universities – including the University of Illinois, University of Missouri, and Texas A&M – in connection with our Identity Campaign, and the school’s refusal to comply with state open records laws. As these high profile conflicts make splashes in local press, the USDA’s registry has allowed us to gain insights into how they use dogs and cats in testing, and also have allowed us to show a pattern that these schools have flouted animal welfare laws. This has been vital for BFP to further our mission of educating the public about how animals are used in research.
Q. How did other people and organizations use the USDA Animal Abuser Registry?
A.The USDA Animal Abuser Registry is an invaluable resource for journalists. In 2015, Harvard University closed its federally-funded primate testing facility, following years of controversy surrounding the school’s treatment of thousands of monkeys who were formerly imprisoned there. The university paid $24,000 in fines for repeated violations of federal law, including an incident where more than a dozen monkeys were found dehydrated and dead due to staff negligence. These abuses and violations of the law only came to light because journalist Carolyn Johnson utilized the USDA’s online database and wrote a series of scathing articles for the Boston Globe about what she uncovered. The public responded with justifiable outcry and Harvard was compelled to take action to stop further abuses. This is the media doing its job as intended and the democratic process in action.
The removal of the USDA Animal Abuser Registry will also make the job of law enforcement officers more difficult. Municipal, county, and state governments across the country have all passed various local ordinances regulating puppy mills, pet stores, exotic animal acts, and research facilities. Many of these ordinances have baked into them the procurement of data from the USDA database. For example, Palm Beach requires that pet stores only sell dogs from suppliers with clean animal welfare inspections. To ensure compliance, the county cross-checked the suppliers’ enforcement records using the USDA database. Now that the database has been taken offline, enforcement of this ordinance has become impossible. Dianne Suave, director for Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control said that she failed to see “any positive reason why this information would be removed.”
Q. Why was the registry taken offline?
A.It is hard to know exactly what or who drove the USDA’s internal decision-making process. However, it is clear that for many years, USDA-APHIS has been pressured by the industries it regulates to restrict access to the registry and put up other obstacles to transparency. As recently as January 2017, the Cavalry Group – a lobbying organization with the aim of “protecting and defending animal enterprise” – published a column criticizing Freedom of Information Act protections and urging the Trump administration to view the USDA database as a “Trojan horse” for so-called “radical” animal rights organizations.
On its website, USDA-APHIS claims that it removed the Animal Abuser Registry in order to be in compliance with the Privacy Act, Freedom of Information Act, and “other [unnamed] laws.” But this claim doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The records in question concern the operations of large commercial and government institutions. They never did contain information of a personal nature, and the individual identities associated with these businesses was always redacted in accordance with federal law.
Ironically, one of the few datasets that is still available on the APHIS website is a monthly FOIA log. This log allows anyone, including industry representatives, to track public records requests in real time and learn the identities of any journalists or critics requesting information from the federal government. It seems clear who’s privacy matters and who’s doesn’t in the eyes of the USDA.
Q. What action is BFP taking to restore the animal abuser registry?
A. Because we believe the USDA’s actions have violated the spirit and letter of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), BFP has joined a coalition of animal protection organizations and filed a lawsuit against the federal government to compel the restoration of the USDA’s database. Additionally, BFP has started to work to make public what USDA records we already have in our possession, to try to fill the “void” that has been created by the agency’s indefensible actions. And finally, we encourage all of our members and supporters to contact their elected officials to demand that this harmful move be reversed. This is not a time when any of us can remain silent.
Q. What can I do?
A. First, contact your members of Congress, including both of your Senators and your Representative, and urge them to do everything in their power to compel the USDA to restore its Animal Abuser Registry. Keep in mind that phone calls often gain more traction than emails or messages delivered via social media. Use the the following links to identify your members of Congress:
The best way to get through to your members of Congress is to call the district office nearest you, rather than their Washington DC office. Report back to BFP about what your members of Congress plan to do, so we can keep track of where they stand.
After you call your members of Congress, call USDA-APHIS directly at 844-820-2234 and urge them to restore their database.