The Animal Welfare Act: Government Report Finds that both the USDA and Research Labs Fall Short

Oversight of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is conducted by the Animal Care Program of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Following are highlights from an audit conducted by USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG), titled "APHIS Animal Care Program Inspection and Enforcement Activities" and released to the public on Oct. 20, 2005.

LAX ENFORCEMENT AT EASTERN REGIONAL OFFICE

Educating into compliance appears to be the USDA's mantra in regards to the Animal Welfare Act. The agency believes "fines and stipulations can at times promote hostility," and it can get the thousands of zoos, circuses, animal dealers, research facilities and airlines to comply with the minimum requirements of the federal law by treating them as "customers." Education is fine, but the USDA must not use it in lieu of decisive enforcement action.

While the audit found most APHIS employees are highly committed to enforcing the AWA, it cited a precipitous drop in enforcement action against AWA violators by the Eastern Regional Office. The Eastern office sent over 200 cases of suspected violations to the USDA's Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES) in Fiscal Years 2002 and 2003, but this number plummeted to 82 in 2004. Similarly, it declined to take action against 126 of 475 violators referred to and investigated by IES (in contrast to 18 of 439 declined by the Western office). The Eastern office issued only 38 stipulated fines to violators during those same years (143 were issued in the West).

Treating repeat violators with impunity is endangering animals and people. For example, a zoo in the East with a history of AWA violations committed yet another when a 4-year- old boy was bitten by a non-human primate and required over 100 stitches. No enforcement action was taken. In the audit, it was noted that the percentage of repeat violators is already twice as high in the East as in the West.

LOW FINES NOT A DETERRENT

The USDA gives a 75 percent discount to nearly every AWA violator "as a means of amicably reaching an agreement on the amount of the fines and avoiding court." For example, five gorillas and a rhinoceros died because of apparent failures by a zoo. The Texas exhibitor, initially fined $22,500, was offered a discounted fine of only $5,600 to avoid a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. Other concessions may be offered, including the use of part of the fine to improve the facility so that the amounts actually paid are a fraction of the original assessment.

During the Fiscal Years of 2002 to 2004, APHIS issued 181 stipulated fines—totaling a mere $275,061, or an average of only about $1,500 per fine. The OIG report suggests these reduced fines are generally not effective (76 percent continued to commit AWA violations) and should be eliminated for all repeat violators and serious offenses. The USDA was also encouraged to increase fines by basing them on the number of animals affected per violation, not merely the number of violations.

majority of Research facilities Fail to Comply From Fiscal Years 2002 to 2004, the number of research facilities cited for violations of the AWA steadily increased from 463 to 600. In addition, the audit noted that when fines are ultimately assessed, they are often so low they are inconsequential for multi- billion dollar research facilities. A university cited for 12 serious veterinary care violations and the death of two animals was originally fined $37,675, but settled the case by paying $9,400—a pittance in light of assets totaling $6.2 billion. Subsequently, the USDA has had to repeatedly investigate the university for additional violations.

Unlike the other entities covered under the AWA, the USDA does not have the authority to stop a research facility that is violating the law from conducting its business of experimenting on animals. Therefore, the OIG report recommends legislative change to increase the fines that could be assessed for registered research facilities—from $2,750 to $10,000.

Additionally, the report says mandatory oversight bodies are not effectively monitoring animal care activities or reviewing protocols. One laboratory's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) approved a protocol for antibody production in approximately 80 rabbits, but over one thousand were actually used. Training for IACUC members is suggested.

We will keep watch to ensure the USDA implements OIG's recommendations. Please contact the Animal Welfare Institute or visit www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/33002-03-SF.pdf for the full report.

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