What the Government Shutdown Means for Animals

January 7, 2019

an english bulldog

The temporary shutdown of the federal government that began on December 22 has dragged into the new year without a clear end in sight. Not only does this lapse in federal funds affect government employees and curtail important services for people—it also directly impacts animals. Here are some examples of how animals are affected by the shutdown.

USDA Inspections of Puppy Mills

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) at commercial facilities that breed, sell or exhibit animals, including puppy mills. During the shutdown, all routine inspections of AWA-licensed facilities have ceased. This means that puppy mills that house hundreds of dogs are currently operating without any government oversight. When properly conducted, APHIS inspections of puppy mills ensure that bare minimum standards, such as access to water and food, are met. Past APHIS enforcement of the AWA has been notoriously weak; animals deserve better, but they certainly won’t be protected at all while the government is closed for business. When the USDA isn’t able to do its job, puppy mills can operate with zero accountability and dogs will continue to suffer.

Horse Soring

APHIS is also charged with enforcing the Horse Protection Act (HPA) to combat the abusive practice of soring, the use of painful chemicals and devices to inflict pain in horses to compel an exaggerated, high-stepping gait. APHIS oversees the inspection of at-risk show horses to ensure that they have not been sored and assesses penalties for violations. We are concerned enough as it is about whether inspectors are adequately enforcing the HPA and preventing trainers from harming horses. Suspension of this program during the government shutdown could mean that unscrupulous trainers will take advantage of this lapse in oversight. 

During the shutdown, APHIS has retained a small number of staff who can be deployed to respond to serious animal welfare concerns. Unfortunately, APHIS does not consider routine oversight of animal care an “essential function” during government shutdowns. We urge the agency to reconsider how animal care activities are categorized, since there is a higher potential for animals to be harmed without government oversight.

Farm Animals Heading to Slaughter

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) upholds the requirements of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act related to the treatment of animals prior to and during slaughter. FSIS’s shutdown contingency plan does not specifically address continued enforcement of humane slaughter laws. However, meat and poultry inspection operations, and most employees who support those activities, have been deemed essential, so it’s likely that any humane handling violations are still being monitored and recorded during the shutdown as required by the Federal Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts.

Wild Horses & Burros 

Two federal agencies—the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Interior Department) and the U.S. Forest Service (part of the USDA)—are responsible for managing herds of wild horses and burros that roam our public lands. The ongoing care of wild horses and burros who have been gathered from the range and held in corrals is considered an essential government function, so those animals are continuing to receive care during the government shutdown. However, the lapse in government funds means that the federal agencies will not initiate any new gathers of wild horses and burros during this time. Additionally, wild horses from the Devil’s Garden herd in California could get a reprieve from a planned sale by the U.S. Forest Service that would put them in danger of being slaughtered for meat in Mexico and Canada.

Overall, the government shutdown is bad news for animals. The government agencies that help protect animals can’t enforce animal-protection laws without funding. We urge Congress and President Trump to work quickly to restore funding to the government so our federal agencies can resume operating important programs aimed at protecting animals from cruelty.

If you have a question about the government shutdown or if you’d like to speak directly with our Legislative Engagement team directly about our work in this arena, please email [email protected].