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Amid outcry, some animal welfare documents are restored to USDA website

Dogs rescued in 2015 from a suspected Warm Springs, Ark., puppy mill. Information on animal abuses at dog breeders and other facilities was abruptly removed from the Agriculture Department website this month. On Friday, a fraction of those documents were restored. (Lance Murphey/AP Images for Humane Society)

Some of the animal welfare documents that were abruptly purged from an Agriculture Department database early this month were restored Friday, days after animal rights groups filed a lawsuit to make the records public again.

The documents that were restored to the database include inspection reports for research institutions and certain federal labs that work with animals. Similar reports on the treatment of animals by zoos, breeding operations and animal transporters — which represent the vast majority of facilities that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service oversees — are still unavailable.

The database is maintained by APHIS, in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.

In a statement, APHIS noted that reports on some enforcement actions — when the agency moves against violators of animal welfare law — are available on the website of the USDA’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.

In the past, animal welfare advocates and journalists have used APHIS’s searchable database to monitor government regulation and expose abuses at circuses, zoos and research labs. Members of the public could also use the records for information about dog breeders and pet stores.

This week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights groups filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the removal of these records violates the Freedom of Information Act.

USDA removed animal welfare reports from its site. A show-horse lawsuit may be why.

APHIS spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said that the restoration of records was not a response to the PETA lawsuit. The inspection service said that the reports were taken offline early this month for review and are being added back to the database once agency officials have determined that they are “appropriate for reposting.”

Until all the reports are back, the missing information can be accessed only through a Freedom of Information Act request, a process that can take weeks, months or years.

It’s not clear what exactly prompted the inspection service to take the records offline early this month. In a statement, the agency said that it was reviewing all records so it could remove information on cases that had not yet been decided by a judge.

Among a community of show-horse trainers, many believed that this was a response to a lawsuit by Lee and Mike McGartland, two lawyers who enter Tennessee Walking Horses in competitions. Their names had been posted on a list of “violators” in the USDA database after a government veterinary officer determined that they had used an illegal practice called “soring” to produce their horse’s high-stepping gait. The McGartlands sued the agency, arguing that the enforcement program denies due process to those accused of violations and breaks privacy laws by publishing personal information.

The records removal sparked an outcry from animal rights groups, and some saw it as an assault on transparency by the Trump administration. Those critics soon had unlikely allies among the very industries that are regulated by APHIS, including zoos and animal research labs. Members of Congress from both parties signed a letter to President Trump calling for the reversal of the decision.

Resistance is growing to the USDA’s blackout of animal welfare records

In a statement on the APHIS website, the agency noted that it was involved in litigation about what information was posted online. It said that the decision to review the database was made “well before” the change of administration.

“The agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy,” the statement read. “While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy.”

Justin Goodman of the White Coat Waste Project, which advocates against taxpayer-funded experiments on animals, said he is “thrilled” that the inspection reports for research facilities have been restored. But he noted that some of the records on government labs are still missing, as is information on exhibitors, such as zoos and circuses, as well as breeders and transporters.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) called the partial restoration of the database “not good enough.”

Other groups, including PETA and the Humane Society, issued statements demanding that the rest of the deleted records be restored. Brittany Peet, PETA’s director of captive-animal law enforcement, said that the group will continue its litigation against the USDA until that happens.