WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday abruptly removed inspection reports and other information from its website about the treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding operations and other facilities.
In a statement, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service cited court rulings and privacy laws for the decision, which it said was the result of a "comprehensive review" that took place over the past year. It said the removed documents, which also included records of enforcement actions against violators of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act, would now be accessible only via Freedom of Information Act Requests. Those can take years to be approved.
"We remain equally committed to being transparent and responsive to our stakeholders' informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals with whom we come in contact," the statement said.
The records that had been available were frequently used by animal welfare advocates to monitor government regulation of animal treatment at circuses, scientific labs and zoos. Members of the public could also use the department's online database to search for information about dog breeders, as could pet stores. Seven states currently require pet stores to source puppies from breeders with clean USDA inspection reports, according to the Humane Society of the United States - a requirement that could now be impossible to meet.
Animal welfare organizations quickly condemned the removal of the information, which they called unexpected and said would allow animal abuse to go unchecked.
"The USDA action cloaks even the worst puppy mills in secrecy and allows abusers of Tennessee walking horses, zoo animals and lab animals to hide even the worst track records in animal welfare," said John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign.
In a statement, Kathy Guillermo, the senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called it "a shameful attempt to keep the public from knowing when and which laws and regulations have been violated. Many federally registered and licensed facilities have long histories of violations that have caused terrible suffering."
It is unclear whether the decision to remove the animal-related records was driven by newly hired President Donald Trump administration officials. When asked questions about the change, a USDA-APHIS representative referred back to the department's statement. The Associated Press reported that a department spokeswoman declined to say whether the removal was temporary or permanent.
The change came two days after Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., introduced a bill calling for more information about and a reduction in testing on animals at government research labs. The bill is backed by an advocacy group, the White Coat Waste Project, which says such testing is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Justin Goodman, the group's vice president for advocacy and policy, said much of the information he has gathered on animal testing at hundreds of federal facilities - including inspection reports and annual reports that can include information on the species and numbers of animals used - came from the USDA-APHIS database. He said the department's reference to privacy requirements were puzzling, because many of the documents were already heavily redacted. The page where the information was located now brings up the announcement about its removal.
"There was already a troubling lack of transparency about what happens in government-funded labs," Goodman said. "This was a very important resource for us, and for every animal organization, in terms of tracking patterns of animal use and compliance, whether it's in labs or other settings."