The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is facing a grave threat. The Trump administration is engaged in a multipronged pro-industry agenda aimed at eviscerating the basic protections for animals mandated by this law—which for more than 50 years has enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support from Congress and the public, who understand the need for proper care and treatment of animals by breeders, dealers, zoos, circuses, and research laboratories. The administration is undermining the USDA Animal Care program’s enforcement of the AWA in order to protect the animal users, not the animals being used, while keeping the public in the dark about cruelty and abuse. These changes include the following:
Historic Lack of Enforcement Complaints: Since March 2017, Stephen Vaden, principal deputy general counsel (and President Trump’s nominee for the general counsel position), has been the de facto head of the USDA Office of General Counsel (OGC). Vaden is mostly known for his involvement in voter suppression efforts, including legal work supporting a North Carolina law that a US Appeals Court struck down as unconstitutional, stating that it “targeted African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” At the OGC, he has been accused of transferring career employees outside their areas of expertise for political reasons while also causing plummeting morale and a climate of fear among the very attorneys charged with filing crucial AWA enforcement complaints.
During the first 18 months of the Trump administration, the USDA filed just two such complaints—compared to the 59 filed in the 24 months of 2015 and 2016. One of these paltry two was a grossly inadequate complaint filed against notorious former puppy mill operator Debra Pratt. (See AWI Quarterly, summer 2018.) Meanwhile, Animal Care’s 2017 Accomplishment Report touts “initiat[ing] and subsequently clos[ing] enforcement cases more efficiently” because, instead of filing serious complaints with deterrent value, it is issuing far more stipulated penalties that favor alleged violators with reduced fines while enabling them to evade online public scrutiny.
Continued Lack of Transparency: The 2017 Accomplishment Report also claims, “We worked hard to reinstate the Public Search Tool after its removal from our website to allow for a comprehensive review of our records.” Really? In fact, more than 90 percent of the inspection records of over 3,000 animal breeders and dealers cannot be tracked online because the USDA has redacted identifying information. (The department feels these regulated entities are entitled to anonymity because they are “homestead businesses.”) Vital enforcement records such as stipulated penalties and pending administrative complaints also remain offline since their removal in August 2016. Although Congress instructed the USDA to restore in full the records it wiped, the department has failed to comply.
Gutting Inspection Standards and Procedures: Restoring all inspection reports online will mean little, however, if the administration continues its current course of watering down inspection standards and procedures to the point where inspection reports become meaningless.
In May, the USDA released a revised, slimmer Animal Welfare Inspection Guide with key provisions omitted and more than 150 pages cut. Some of the most egregious changes involve veterinary care. For instance, the USDA is no longer requiring a written program of veterinary care for licensed operations to be signed by an actual veterinarian. Moreover, the USDA has done away with all mandates for veterinary care plans; instead, it now merely suggests topics that “may be helpful.” Other examples abound of a dangerous dilution of veterinary care requirements, which taken together will have a profoundly negative impact; adequate veterinary care—aided by proper USDA oversight—is fundamental to animal welfare.
The department also appears to be backing away from conducting confiscations as a means to rescue the animals who need USDA intervention the most. Thirty-one pages regarding confiscation criteria from the prior Inspection Guide have been reduced to seven lines buried in appendices.
Threats have been made against those who don’t follow the new regimen. The USDA is even reining in its inspectors from detailing their full findings on inspection reports. “Critical” citations—which involve horrific animal suffering—will no longer be included on inspection reports if certain criteria are met.
In fact, inspectors are being encouraged to “work with” rather than cite the facilities. Instead of documenting veterinary care issues, inspectors are now instructed to contact the facility’s attending veterinarian—and if the attending veterinarian and facility claim the issue is being addressed, there will be no citation. As a final straw, licensees and registrants can challenge and further weaken the findings before the reports are finalized.
The USDA is also running a “pilot” program of announced inspections, with the hope they will be “blended” with unannounced inspections—which have been the backbone of AWA enforcement for more than 30 years. Moreover, licensees are now provided with excuses to circumvent unannounced inspections, ranging from informing the inspector of a doctor’s appointment to a “personal event.”
“Learning Opportunities” in Lieu of Enforcement: On July 13, the USDA published a bulletin entitled “Animal Care Milestones for First Half of FY [fiscal year] 2018.” These purported milestones were contained in an Animal Care Impact Report, which touted “learning opportunities,” whereby Animal Care representatives attended “multiple meetings of breeders, exhibitors, and the research community,” and “discussed the issues they face, our oversight role, and the guidance we can provide.” Also highlighted were “45 noninspection visits or calls by specialists to help AWA facilities comply.”
It is a telling indication of the administration’s pro-industry, anti-AWA agenda that “learning opportunities” and “noninspection visits” are counted as noteworthy “milestones” for the entire first six months of FY 2018. Indeed, the grand plan appears to be to turn the USDA from regulator to business partner—limiting “enforcement” to gently admonishing an animal user now and again. The public, meanwhile, is peddled the illusion that the reduction in citations is a result of greater compliance rather than suppressed enforcement.
Granted, AWA enforcement has never been what it should be. Although the department has built up a credible AWA law enforcement infrastructure, it has always been woefully understaffed and underfunded (currently, over 100 inspectors inspect more than 8,000 facilities). And the inspectors, investigators, and attorneys within this infrastructure have always had to report to whatever political party is in power and to endure the pendulum swings between active enforcement and industry appeasement. But this brazen attempt to utterly incapacitate the AWA is something new.
Animal users must not trump the animals who need protection. Please urge your senators and representative to defend and protect the AWA. And vote in November for those who will uphold long-standing, vitally important animal protection laws. The Trump administration’s attempt to eviscerate the Animal Welfare Act cannot be allowed to succeed.