An important research tool available to the public for anyone interested in identifying cases of animal abuse was to access USDA inspection reports. That is, until the records abruptly disappeared from the USDA website in February. An outcry ensued and a portion of the records were again made available. However, the new information available is more limited. “For more in-depth information, you can submit a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. But this can be a lengthy process. We’ve already waited for two or more years for the USDA to supply info,” says Crystal Schaeffer of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, a group that advocates to end the use of animals in science.
The USDA Animal and Plant Inspection Records (APHIS) disappeared from the website shortly after the Trump administration took power, but this is something that had been in the works during the Obama years. It seems to be the result of a lawsuit was filed against the USDA by owners of a Tennessee walking horse. The soring of Tennessee walking show horses that exhibit the "big lick" exaggerated gait is a pervasive practice and the only oversight of these animals is at shows where they are inspected by USDA officials. The horse at the center of the lawsuit was determined to be sore by a USDA inspector during a post show inspection. His owners, Lee and Mike McGartland were identified as “violators” in the public USDA database. They sued the USDA arguing that the public database violates privacy laws and denies them due process.
The USDA claims that the changes to APHIS are simply the agency trying to “balance the need for transparency with rules for protecting individual privacy.” However Cathy Liss of the Animal Welfare Institute argues that the USDA is merely capitulating to the Tennessee walking horse industry.
For people trying to research potential animal abuse, the new data base is making the job more difficult. Crystal Schaeffer (AAVS) states “The main sticking point now is that the database is not searchable in a helpful way. With the old database, there were many more points to search and data could be filtered. For example, yo
u could do a search for research facilities with active registrations that use dogs and where cited for animal use violations. It's impossible to do that now. So it's much harder to get the info and USDA is short on resources which makes the FOIA process take longer.”
We can only hope that with organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and The Beagle Freedom Project filing lawsuits, the USDA APHIS reports will again be more transparent.