Bill Reintroduced to Strengthen Vital Protections under the Animal Welfare Act

Washington, DC—The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) welcomes the reintroduction yesterday of the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL). This bill would protect animals from unscrupulous dealers and exhibitors, and close existing loopholes in the US Department of Agriculture licensing process that endanger animals and allow chronic violators to escape accountability.

First introduced in 2019, this legislation would end the USDA’s practice of renewing exhibitor and dealer licenses even when licensees have long histories of failing to comply with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the primary federal law ensuring humane care of animals used in commercial enterprises.

In the past, the USDA routinely rubber-stamped license renewals. Under a new regulatory scheme instituted last year, animal dealers, breeders, and exhibitors—including large-scale commercial dog breeders, traveling circuses, roadside zoos, petting farms/zoos, animal acts, animal rides, exotic wildlife operations, and marine mammal facilities—are required to obtain a license only every three years after passing a pre-announced inspection, and they will be given up to three opportunities to pass. Unfortunately, this system will give licensees who are habitually out of compliance the opportunity to clean up enough to pass an inspection that they were alerted to in advance.

“There have long been serious enforcement failures with respect to the Animal Welfare Act,” said Cathy Liss, president of AWI. “The situation has further deteriorated in the last several years, even as the Netflix docuseries ‘Tiger King’ has brought unprecedented public attention to the activities of notorious roadside zoos licensed under the AWA. The USDA needs to stop allowing facilities to remain persistently and egregiously out of compliance and start taking action sooner—not merely when a case becomes highly publicized.”

From 2016 to 2020, there was a 67 percent drop in the number of AWA inspections where citations were documented, according to AWI research. New investigations plunged by nearly 90 percent during this period.

“The Animal Welfare Act is a crucial piece of legislation for protecting animals, but it must be effectively enforced and that’s why reintroducing the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act is necessary,” Krishnamoorthi said. “This legislation will end rampant animal cruelty by increasing oversight and transparency of animal dealer and exhibitor licensing while ensuring that those who abuse animals don’t have the chance to do so again.”

The bill would require animal dealers and exhibitors to improve their veterinary care standards and renew their licenses annually, with each renewal contingent on passing an unannounced inspection by the USDA. Businesses determined to be noncompliant with the minimum care standards of the AWA, or that have repeatedly violated the AWA or local, state or other federal laws related to animals, would be denied licenses. Further, the USDA could permanently revoke a license (following a hearing) when a dealer or exhibitor has committed multiple animal welfare violations; such businesses would be barred from receiving a license under another business name or business partner.

The bill also empowers citizens to file lawsuits to enforce the AWA, similar to what is provided for under federal environmental laws.

Media Contact Information

Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, [email protected]