February 8, 2018

The USDA Is Failing Animals… and Us

three dogs in a muddy pen

By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker 

One of the key responsibilities of the USDA is to protect animals from cruelty and suffering, specifically through its administration of the landmark 1966 Animal Welfare Act. That’s not an opinion; it’s basic civics. But judging by the USDA’s repeated actions against the interests of vulnerable animals over the last year, it’s time to recognize an alarming but obvious truth: Under the Trump administration, the USDA has not merely turned a blind eye to animal cruelty—it has become complicit in it.

A year ago this month, the USDA abruptly removed from the Internet its searchable database of Animal Welfare Act violations, as well as notices of enforcement actions taken against violators. These reports were critical in monitoring animal cruelty in commercial dog breeding and other animal care facilities, including zoos and research centers.

That information is vital to not only the safety of those animals, but also the education of prospective pet owners and the enforcement of protective animal welfare laws and regulations. How can we expect breeders to be held accountable, buyers to beware and law enforcement to enforce if we’re hiding the very information they need to act responsibly?

The USDA has since restored a small portion of the data, but in amounts so paltry and redacted that the gesture is virtually pointless. Now, the USDA is considering using third-party organizations—not federal inspectors—to inspect and assess animal facilities (including puppy mills) regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. It appears the agency wants to abandon its responsibility for inspecting puppy mills, zoos, research laboratories and other animal facilities, and leave the fate of those vulnerable animals in the hands of private groups often closely tied to the very industries being inspected. Even without conflicts of interest, meaningful inspections will likely be infrequent and inadequate. 

This proposal is unacceptable. When lives are at stake, the role of inspection and oversight should not be relinquished to third parties. Imagine the public outcry if the FAA or OSHA considered downgrading, much less relinquishing, their critical inspection responsibilities.

The USDA is holding public “listening sessions” over the next two months in Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, and Florida, as well as a virtual session. If you can attend or submit a comment, I encourage you to be a strong voice for animals by supporting government inspections that are meaningful, transparent and dedicated to animal welfare, not a third-party ruse that hides animal exploitation.

Our treatment of animals speaks volumes about us. When we fail them, we fail ourselves. We surrender our integrity and our values. We diminish our culture. So when our government abrogates its responsibilities, it falls on us to step in and speak out. The USDA must do right by the American people, which means doing its job to protect animals in need.

(Originally published in The Hill)