The U.S. Department of Agriculture continually reduced penalties for animal-care violations around the country and so poorly used its limited resources that it sometimes inspected facilities that had no animals while it skimped on other reviews, according to a new audit.
The low penalties came in cases in which animals died, including a Missouri episode when a chinchilla was accidentally processed through a cage-washer with 180 degree water. Other cases occurred in North Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma, although no facilities were named.
Overall, according to the audit from its inspector general, the department “did not make the best use of its limited resources” and “did not follow its own criteria” in handling animal-death cases. And it improperly gave what are called “good faith reductions” from the maximum penalties it could have assessed.
“What struck me was the continued lack of giving meaningful penalties,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States, an animal-protection group that provided information to the inspector general. “There have to be meaningful penalties if you are going to deter abuses.”
The Department of Agriculture generally agreed with the inspector general’s findings in the audit, which was released in December but received virtually no public attention. The department said it was working to modify its inspection procedures.
In a statement, spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole of the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the department “welcomes OIG’s findings and is committed to continued improvement of our enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and inspections of research facilities.”
She said the department anticipates completing suggested changes by the end of September 2015.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, the department regulates the care of warm-blooded animals for research, exhibition or the wholesale pet trade. Its animal care unit has regional offices in Raleigh, N.C., and Fort Collins, Colo., and is headquartered in Maryland.
In 1995, 2005 and 2010 audits, the department’s inspector general found penalties to be lower than they could have been. The most recent report found similar problems and also concluded the department was inefficiently using its staff.
According to the audit, the department conducted at least 500 inspections since 2001 at research facilities that had not had any regulated animals for more than two years; in some cases, the gap was 13 years. Under its policies, the department needed to conduct full inspections at all “active facilities” – even if their animals were long gone. The inspector general said that although the Animal Welfare Act never said all inspections had to be the same, the department’s internal policies did require it.
“Considering the fiscal challenges experienced government-wide, we believe that (the department) could more efficiently operate its inspection process,” the audit concluded.
At the same time, other inspections weren’t as thorough as required, often because inspectors said they didn’t have enough time, the audit said.
In response, the department said it was revising its internal policies so it had more discretion to conduct limited inspections at facilities that no longer had animals.
The Animal Welfare Act allows fines of up to $10,000 for each violation; Congress in 2008 had increased those maximums in an attempt to make the law more meaningful.
But while the maximum went up, the department’s ability to reduce penalties from the maximum had the effect of offsetting Congress’ increases, the audit said.
Asked about the overall reductions, the department said that it issues strong penalties “at or near the penalty maximum in appropriate circumstances,” but said the bulk of alleged violations don’t warrant the maximum.
Among penalties cited:
– A research facility in Missouri was assessed $3,000 after a technician left a chinchilla – a squirrel-sized animal with a bushy tail and large round ears – in a cage set to go through a washer. The animal died in the 180-degree water. While the department assessed a penalty, it also applied a “good faith” reduction that is given facilities with generally clean records.
The inspector general, however, concluded that “having no prior history does not necessarily substantiate good faith, especially when animals die or suffer because of the violation.”
The inspector general would have boosted the penalty by $1,000.
– An exhibitor in North Carolina received an official warning for failing to eliminate a safety hazard in a bear enclosure. But the warning was ignored. Even so, when it was cited again for the same problem, the exhibitor got a good faith discount. Instead of the $6,857 assessed, the inspector general would have levied $9,143.
– A breeder in Oklahoma was found with a dog whose left hind leg had exposed bone and red raw flesh. “Dog has been in this condition for the past 7 days,” the department found; the breeder admitted as much.
But because the department did not have evidence such as photos for each of the seven days, the department counted it as one violation – not seven as required by the Animal Welfare Act. The assessed penalty was $37,893; the inspector general said it should have been $60,179.
– An exhibitor in Texas was cited after poorly constructed fences allowed stray dogs to enter and kill five animals. In a second incident, a Malayan tapir – an endangered, large mammal – escaped after a worker left its cage open; that resulted in the death of one animal and injuries to two others. And a third time, a stray dog killed two animals and injured four others.
The inspector general found that the penalties on the exhibitor didn’t properly account for the injured animals; the fine of $18,107 should have been $25,536, it said.