USDA inspectors documented 60 percent fewer violations at animal facilities in 2018 from the previous year, in what animal protection groups say is the latest sign of weakened enforcement by an agency charged with ensuring pet breeders, research labs, zoos and other exhibitors follow federal animal welfare laws.

About 8,000 facilities licensed by the USDA to keep animals are subject to surprise inspections every one to three years, though the agency says it now provides advance notice to some. Inspectors can note citations known as “noncompliances,” such as inadequate shelter or untreated wounds, and categorize them as noncritical, critical or direct — the latter two being the most serious.

In 2017, inspectors recorded more than 4,000 citations, including 331 marked as critical or direct, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group that tallied the figures using inspection reports published on a USDA website. In 2018, the number of citations fell below 1,800, of which 128 were critical or direct.

The drop in citations is one illustration of a shift — or what critics call a gutting — in USDA’s oversight of animal industries covered by the Animal Welfare Act. Citations can lead to enforcement actions, including hearings and penalties, and those also plummeted in 2018.

“This is what the inspectors in the field are seeing and writing down,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, who added she has spoken to inspectors who said new guidance has left them confused about what they are supposed to cite. “They’re crippling their own inspection people from writing up the law and what they see.”

A USDA spokeswoman, who confirmed the decrease in the overall number of citations, said the number of reports that included citations rose 8 percent in 2018. “We still documented noncompliances at facilities, but generally there were fewer noncompliant items on the inspection reports,” said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which includes the animal care division.

Cole said some of the drop could be attributed to a 5 percent decrease in inspections in 2018 due to a shortage of inspectors. But it also is related to what the USDA’s deputy director for animal care, Bernadette Juarez, said in an interview last year is a “revamped” enforcement process that emphasizes working more closely with licensees, and their veterinarians, to resolve problems. Those interactions are not necessarily documented.

“We have worked to align our inspection guidance with the plain language of the Animal Welfare Act,” Cole said, and inspectors have been newly trained on applying its regulations. “All of this resulted in improved compliance at many facilities and, in some cases, in the closure of chronically noncompliant facilities.”

Critics say the changes amount to leniency and a decrease in transparency. One “incentives” policy announced in 2018, Liss noted, informs licensees that violations will not be cited in inspections if facilities follow certain steps to self-report them.

“One of the things USDA seems to be doing is creating numerous opportunities not to even write things up,” Liss said. “It’s one thing if you want to reduce the penalty or not take action. But you still should be required to document that they’ve done something.”

USDA enforcement of animal welfare laws has been the target of increased scrutiny and reproach from Congress and animal protection groups since early 2017, when the agency abruptly removed records from an online database where they had long been available to the public. Many licensees abhorred that level of public access, which they said made them targets of animal rights activists. Animal advocates said the records helped hold the agency, and animal industries, accountable.

The agency later restored some records to its website, many in redacted form. Others can be requested only through public information requests, which can take months to be fulfilled.

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