There’s a new twist in the case of the Department of Agriculture’s abrupt — and widely assailed — purge of thousands of animal welfare inspection reports and other enforcement records from its website: A lawsuit that probably played a role in the removal has been dropped.
The decision by the agency, which cited ongoing litigation and “individual privacy concerns” when it removed the documents earlier this month, prompted a chorus of opposition from Capitol Hill, animal protection groups and some of the industries the department regulates. But it was welcomed by members of the Tennessee walking horses community, some of whom had sued the USDA over a records database they said illegally maligned horse owners accused of violating the federal Horse Protection Act.
Tennessee walking horse shows are regulated by the USDA under the act, which prohibits cruel practices sometimes used to encourage the horses’ high-stepping gait, including the application of caustic chemicals to the animals’ legs. Until Feb. 3, records about violations and accused violations were posted publicly on the department’s website. The department now says those records, as well as those involving facilities like dog-breeding operations and research labs that use animals, are under review.
But their removal seems to have been enough to encourage the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a Texas couple and a horse show organization called SHOW, to drop the suit Friday.
What this means for access to the records, most of which must now be requested under the Freedom of Information Act, is unclear. In a statement published on the website of the Walking Horse Report, a representative for SHOW noted that the case had been dismissed without prejudice, which leaves the door open for the plaintiffs to sue again “should the USDA change course and republish the incorrect information.”
“Given the fact that we have achieved the primary objectives in the lawsuit and we still retain our ability to refile the case should the information be made public again, SHOW felt it was best to dismiss the complaint,” said Jeffrey Howard, a board member of a walking horse event that owns SHOW and the publisher of the Walking Horse Report. “With the removal of the lists, the public now has an accurate record of the industry’s record of over 99 percent compliance with the HPA.”
That is not how the situation is viewed by the Humane Society of the United States, which filed a lawsuit that compelled the USDA to first publish the animal welfare records in 2011. In a blog post Monday, group’s president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, wrote that the case dismissal could indicate a “a secret deal with the USDA behind the judge’s and the public’s back” or the plaintiffs’ realization that “they had a very difficult path to prevail in court.”
The USDA has restored a small number of the records to its website since removing them this month, including annual reports of some research institutions and animal transporters, which are regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act. It has not restored any documents related to the Horse Protection Act, but it says it is continuing a review to “determine which information is appropriate for reposting.”
Does the dismissal of the show horse lawsuit change anything? Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the USDA department that enforces the horse and animal welfare acts, said Monday that there is “a recent case filed that is still pending” that is related to the records database, and she referred questions to the Department of Justice. A spokeswoman there said the ongoing lawsuit in question is one filed this month by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights organizations — a lawsuit that comes at the database from the opposite side of the show horse lawsuit, arguing that its removal was illegal.
“It’s absurd for anyone to suggest that the USDA is keeping records off the site because of our lawsuit, which seeks to put them back on,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said. “This suggestion is even more ridiculous given that the USDA has reposted some of the records on two occasions since our lawsuit was filed.”