On May 20, the Obama Administration pledged to fully enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Not a minute too soon, it turns out. Two days later, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an audit of AWA enforcement, focusing on “problematic” dealers (i.e., breeders and middleman brokers) of dogs for the pet trade. The audit uncovered serious shortcomings on the part of the Animal Care (AC) program and its parent agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), that have allowed violators to avoid sanctions (and, in some cases, to escape regulation altogether) while keeping dogs in inhumane, filthy conditions. AWI has been calling attention to these problems for years.
Among OIG’s major findings: Animal Care does not enforce the law effectively. During a two-year period, 2,416 of 4,250 violators repeatedly broke the law, and AC’s reliance on “education and cooperation” rather than penalties puts animals’ lives in jeopardy. During the same period, AC failed to notify states of potential cruelty cases involving dealers and failed to confiscate animals, or delayed doing so, even when the animals were suffering or dying. Penalties, when imposed, are so low that violators regard them simply as a cost of doing business. In many cases, violations were not even reported or documented properly, and deficient evidence seriously compromised several cases brought against dealers. Exploiting a loophole in the law, some large breeders circumvent the AWA entirely by selling animals over the Internet.
The OIG’s 14 recommendations include:
- requiring enforcement action for direct and serious violations;
- confiscating suffering or dying animals immediately;
- providing better training for inspectors and supervisors “on direct and repeat violations, enforcement procedures, and evidentiary requirements”;
- imposing meaningful penalties, and counting each animal as a separate violation in cases involving animal deaths and unlicensed wholesale activities; and
- seeking legislation to require breeders selling dogs via the Internet to be licensed and adhere to the AWA’s minimum care standards.
Legislation—the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act (H.R. 5434 and S. 3424)—has also been introduced to regulate large-volume dog breeders who sell to the public via the Internet. But closing this loophole will mean very little if APHIS does not also significantly address the numerous other problems documented in the OIG report.