Administration Continues Its Attack on Animal Welfare Act

Zero. That’s how much money was in the proposed budget for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) under the Reagan administration. This attempt to gut funding made clear that administration’s total lack of interest in the federal mandate to protect animals at breeders, dealers, exhibitors, and laboratories. The openness of that antagonism toward enforcement actually made it easier to fight to secure the funds necessary for the US Department of Agriculture to do its job.

The current situation is very different. Enforcement of the AWA is being scuttled by the Trump administration in a far more underhanded way. In an attempt to protect industries, not animals (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2018), the USDA has been systematically weakening AWA oversight and enforcement. Rather than cut off funding, this administration is seeking to excise the law itself.

In February, AWI’s Eric Kleiman and Sydney Hearst conducted a detailed analysis of USDA citations on inspection reports from 2016 through 2018. This analysis revealed drastically fewer citations. As shown in the chart above, citations fell off in 2017 then plunged dramatically in 2018—dropping by 60 percent. The Washington Post’s Karin Brulliard reported our findings on February 26, drawing much-needed attention to the issue.

The USDA’s documentation of noncompliance on inspections is the first line of defense for animals under the AWA. Often in the past, licensees and registrants have corrected the deficiencies without the USDA having to take further action, other than to follow up on citations and continue their routine, unannounced inspections. More serious, repeat, or uncorrected noncompliances could result in the USDA taking legal action—but such actions have also plummeted.

Brulliard reported on the precipitous drop in the USDA’s AWA enforcement last October in the Post, noting that the department issued 192 written warnings in fiscal year (FY) 2016 and only 39 two years later. Administrative complaints fell from 23 in FY 2016 to just one in the first three quarters of FY 2018. AWI provided background information for and was quoted in that article as well.

More details about the tragic state of the USDA’s Animal Care program continue to be revealed. Inspectors are reportedly being ordered to keep noncompliances off inspection reports. Some of the noncompliances are simply ignored while others are cited (under the misnomer “teachable moments”) in a different document that is not posted publicly. Deference is often given to licensees and registrants who challenge citations; indeed, an appeal to USDA management may result in citations getting erased altogether from inspection reports. Many dedicated inspectors have found the situation untenable. Over 40 employees have left—from resignations, retirements, transfers, or firings—since January 2017.

One abhorrent policy change perhaps exemplifies the true danger the animals face: Effective May 2018, the newly eviscerated Animal Welfare Inspection Guide states that the USDA no longer requires that animals be euthanized according to the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines on euthanasia. Does this administration care that the animals may now be facing a return to being killed by blunt force trauma and gunshot? Apparently not.