USDA inspection reports are vital to safeguard animals

Story highlights

  • Ani B. Satz: Government inspection reports were removed from the USDA site
  • Inspection reports, some of which have been restored, are used in a variety of contexts to further animal well-being, she writes

Ani B. Satz is a professor of law at Emory University who teaches animal law. She served as 2016 chair of the section on animal law of the Association of American Law Schools. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)The first few weeks of the Trump administration force us to reassess our vulnerability in the face of executive actions adversely affecting policies on immigration, trade, global alliances, natural resources and the fundamental composition and operation of our government.

It is in this climate of change that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently removed all government inspection reports of animal facilities from its website, abolishing transparency of businesses and universities using animals and severely undermining the ability to prevent even the most extreme animal abuse.
Ani Satz
Inspection reports, which were public until the department removed them February 3, are issued through the USDA and its sub-agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (outlawing chemical burning of horses' feet to produce an elevated gait, or soring). According to APHIS, the change was planned before the start of the Trump administration.
    Following intense opposition from concerned individuals and organizations, USDA restored a very small number of these records on February 17, namely, limited records for eight states.
    The AWA requires entities that exhibit, breed, transport for commercial sale and experiment on certain warm-blooded animals to be licensed. Government enforcement is vital for animal protection, consumer protection and governmental accountability.
    Inspection reports are used in a variety of contexts to further animal well-being. Journalists use them to publicize animal abuses, and individuals and animal charities use them to bring lawsuits against entities violating federal requirements and to monitor government inspections.
    Consumers, as well as pet dealers and retailers, use USDA's resources to research dog breeders to avoid obtaining animals from puppy mills, with legal obligations to do so in seven states.
    Even some inspected entities, such as the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, are troubled by the removal of the inspection reports, since facilities that have nothing to hide build public trust and patronage through disclosure. Notably, Petland stores and pro-animal research group Speaking of Research also are against the shift.
    As seen in the factory farming context, when there is no transparency in operations (farms are not subject to USDA inspection), violations of animal protection laws abound. Piglets are kicked and smashed to death. Baby male chicks of no economic value because they cannot lay eggs are ground up alive in wood chippers. Ill cows are dragged with bulldozers and chains, becoming dismembered. Farm animals are transported to slaughter without adequate hydration, food or rest, many perishing before reaching the slaughterhouse.
    One of dozens of examples from last year alone of the use of USDA inspection reports in litigation to prevent animal abuse is Kuehl v. Sellner, a case decided in the Northern District of Iowa.
    After informal negotiations with an Iowa zoo failed, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other charities used inspection reports documenting extensive, ongoing violations to bring suit and to prevail.
    The photos and reports are almost unbearable -- an emaciated, vomiting and dying lion, and tiny cages for large animals like tigers and pumas with feces piled so high it appears as if a foul blizzard blanketed the cages. Primates, who are extremely social and in the wild cover tens of miles a day, were kept in isolated, small cages and demonstrated severe psychological distress.
    According to Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the USDA's removal of inspection reports also violates a court order reflecting a settlement between the parties that requires the agency to publish certain laboratory data on its website. If so, the administration may be held in contempt of court. (These records were