By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
There are new and explosive revelations about the lengths the Trump administration may be going to in order to prevent U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors from documenting and reporting violations of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.
A Washington Post story details a disturbing case at an Iowa facility in 2017 where nearly 300 raccoons, bred and sold as pets and for research, lay suffering and without relief in their stacked cages in 100-degree temperatures. But when a USDA team of veterinarians and specialists confiscated some of the animals and made plans to come back for the others, an industry group appealed to a Trump White House adviser. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and senior USDA officials then intervened to block the inspectors and veterinarians from taking the remaining raccoons, and they were ordered to return the ones they had already seized.
“In the months that followed, the Iowa incident was described by USDA officials at internal meetings as an example of the new philosophy of animal welfare protection under the Trump administration and Perdue,” reporters Karin Brulliard and William Wan write. “Leaders of the agency’s Animal Care division told inspectors to treat those regulated by the agency—breeders, zoos, circuses, horse shows and research labs—more as partners than as potential offenders.”
William Stokes, a veterinarian who oversaw inspectors in 27 states for USDA, told the Post that the weakened enforcement had caused an “untold numbers of animals” to experience unnecessary suffering.
These are shocking revelations, but they are not surprising to us. The Post article further cements concerns that we’ve had—and voiced—on this blog before: that in the past two-and-a-half years, the USDA—the agency with a mandate to protect animals used by businesses, including pet breeders, zoos, research labs and other institutions—has been failing miserably to do its job because it is busy pandering to those who run these businesses. The result has been immense suffering for the animals, even as the USDA itself has been hemorrhaging experienced staff and taxpayer dollars.
The Post article also discusses a shift in the enforcement of the Horse Protection Act with regards to the soring of Tennessee walking horses and other related breeds—a shift that began in 2016, after the appointment by the Obama administration of Bernadette Juarez, the first non-veterinarian to lead the Animal Care division. Among other changes, a new rule required a second USDA veterinarian to independently perform a second inspection on a sored horse, and unless both came up with the same results, the horse could not be disqualified and the owner could not be cited. As a result, the number of horses that inspectors determined had been sored dropped from 30 percent in 2016 to only two percent in 2018.
The weakening of enforcement is not the only bad change made by the Trump administration: in early 2017, it abruptly removed from the USDA website all public inspection reports on regulated facilities. The same year, it introduced an incentive program that allows licensees to avoid penalties for violations by self-reporting them, even if the violations resulted in animal deaths. It has also removed a chapter in the inspectors’ guide that explained how to identify and confiscate suffering animals, and began training for inspectors that instructs them to “educate” licensees rather than documenting violations.
As a result, since the current administration took office, citations by USDA have plummeted 65%, according to the Post’s research, and enforcement cases declined 92% between 2016 and 2018.
Former Animal Care division head Ron DeHaven called the decrease in citations for the most serious violations concerning. “If there are things that are directly impacting the health and well-being of animals, I don’t care who the administration is,” he told the Post. “Those are the kinds of things that need to be documented.”
The Humane Society of the United States own research for our Horrible Hundred report shows a similar drop. They found that many puppy mills that have been cited by state officials for serious issues, such as emaciated dogs and dying puppies, received completely clean inspection reports from their USDA inspectors.
With our government turning its back on the animals, it has been left to animal protection groups like us—and the media—to shine a light on the cruelty when possible. We are intensifying our fight against puppy mills by working with states and localities to stop the sale of puppies in pet stores altogether, and we’ve been successful in more than 312 localities and two states. Earlier this year, 39 Senators and 188 Representatives wrote a letter urging the USDA to stop treating regulated industries as their clients, tighten up enforcement, require documentation of every noncompliance, and restore the public inspections records and enforcement documents to the USDA’s website.
We, along with the HSUS, have also filed a lawsuit against the USDA for withdrawing, in 2017, a rule finalized by the Obama administration that would have closed loopholes in Horse Protection Act regulations. And we’ll be watching to see how USDA inspectors are allowed to perform their duties at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration that starts this week in Shelbyville. This week, five of the lead House sponsors of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which the House approved in July, sent a letter to Secretary Perdue urging the Department to “do everything possible to vigorously enforce” the HPA, and for field employees at the Celebration to “perform their inspection duties with diligence.” A parallel letter was also sent to the secretary by the lead sponsors of the Senate PAST Act.
The administration should take heed that we will not sit by and allow it to continue choosing the interests of businesses over the animals they use. The media spotlight is already turned on them, Congress is watching, and rest assured we will not miss a single opportunity to protect the animals with all means at our disposal.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.