The U.S. Department of Agriculture has restored some of the tens of thousands of animal welfare documents that it abruptly removed from its website. But they are only a small number of the documents that were scrubbed from the agency's website on Feb. 3.
The USDA announced that it is "posting the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports" resulting from a "comprehensive review" that began with the complete removal of previously public documents that are generated by the agency as it enforces the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.
Still missing from the website are working links to the vast majority of reports from regular inspections of animal-holding facilities that are monitored under AWA, including puppy breeding facilities and zoos.
"This incomplete data dump shows why the U.S. Department of Agriculture should never have removed the documents from its website in the first place," said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo. "Thousands of records are still missing, and there are currently no inspection reports posted for animal exhibitors. Searching the ones that have been reposted is extremely difficult, in part because the search tool has been deactivated. And the reports for research facilities are all lumped together in a single PDF for each state, with many out of order. The USDA should immediately put all records back in their proper place, reactivate the search tool, and continue to post new inspection reports."
To help fill the data gap, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has released every USDA inspection report of captive-animal exhibitors in its archives-nearly 21,000 records, the oldest of which dates from 1984.
"It's critical for animal advocates, law-enforcement officials, and members of the public to know how animal exhibitors have violated the law and whether dangerous wild animals are located nearby," says Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement. "PETA will use every opportunity to push the USDA to put all these widely used documents back on its website, including all new records as they're created."
PETA has joined a coalition of leading animal-protection groups and others to file a lawsuit to compel the USDA to provide the plaintiffs with the deleted records. The lawsuit contends that the sudden removal of these documents was illegal because, among other grounds, the Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to post frequently requested records on their websites. The litigation also seeks to ensure that these critically important animal-welfare records will continue to be made publicly available as they are created. The Humane Society of the United States also announced it is suing the USDA.
Members of Congress have expressed outrage. According to Science magazine, a letter of protest was sent to the agency from 18 Senate Democrats; and a letter was sent to President Donald Trump by a bipartisan group of 101 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, demanding that the information be immediately reposted on the public website.
On Feb. 22, another coalition of animal welfare groups sued USDA to force reposting of the documents. They include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Companion Animal Protection Society, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, and Animal Folks and they invoke the Freedom of Information Act in arguing that USDA is legally obliged to restore the records.
But in a new legal twist, they also argue that USDA violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which prohibits government agencies from taking actions that are "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." And the four groups say that USDA's action in removing the records fits this description.
"The information blackout is a tremendous blow to transparency and undermines advocates who are working to protect hundreds of thousands of animals across the country," Stephen Wells, executive director of ALDF, said in a statement.