More than four dozen animals were rescued from a suspected Warm Springs, Ark., puppy mill in 2015. (Lance Murphey/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States)

The condemnation was swift when the Agriculture Department announced two weeks ago that it had pulled from its website the animal welfare records from 9,000 research labs, dog breeders and other facilities.

And while the first critics were, not surprisingly, animal-protection organizations that depend on the records to expose abuse, opposition quickly expanded to some of the industries regulated by the department.

This week, the department was sued over its move, and federal lawmakers began pressing the Trump administration to again make the records public.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Beagle Freedom Project, Born Free USA and other animal rights groups argue in a federal lawsuit that the removal of the records violates the Freedom of Information Act, which requires government agencies to post frequently requested records on their websites. The groups also contend that removal gets in the way of state and local laws banning the sale of dogs from breeders that have violated the Animal Welfare Act, which the USDA enforces along with the Horse Protection Act.

The department, which said its action was spurred by court opinions, litigation and privacy laws, has announced the records will now be available through FOIA requests. Those can take weeks, months or even years to be granted, however.

“Our lawsuit seeks to compel the USDA to reinstate the records, which it had no right to remove from its website in the first place,” said Delcianna J. Winders, a Harvard Animal Law and Policy fellow who is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny.”


Tennessee walking horses, like this one, are protected under the Horse Protection Act, which the USDA enforces. (Getty Images)

Also this week, 18 Senate Democrats sent a letter to the department’s acting deputy, Michael Young, urging a reversal of the decision. A day later, nearly 100 House members sent a similar letter to President Trump asking him to “immediately restore” the records. Eleven Republicans were among those signing, including Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida.

“Public release of inspection reports and laboratory annual reports increases pressure on entities to abide by the rules,” the House letter reads. “Access to these records has enabled the public to learn about many animal-care violations including by puppy mills, roadside zoos and training barns engaged in cruel horse soring. It has also provided accountability for research facilities that violate the law, and allowed assessment of how many animals are used (often with taxpayer funding) for research that causes unrelieved pain.”

Throughout the week, ordinary pet owners have been tweeting photos of their furry friends to the USDA and lawmakers who didn’t sign the letter, as well as to some who did.

Despite these arguments and demands, the agency has not yet indicated any inclination to restore the records database to its website.

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