USDA must now publicly report all animal welfare violations

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The US Department of Agriculture will now cite all welfare violations in its animal facility inspection reports, the agency said.

At pet stores, such as dog breeding centers and roadside zoos, the USDA conducts routine inspections to ensure compliance with animal protection law, which requires the humane treatment of animals used for research or exhibition purposes. Violators can be fined or charged with animal cruelty.

For the past six years, however, the USDA has allowed a so-called “teaching moments” policy, in which minor violations, such as record-keeping issues or cleanliness lapses, were not documented in public facility inspection reports.

For years, animal welfare advocates have criticized the policy for its lack of transparency. “It was impossible to get an accurate report on the operations of an approved facility and its failures,” says Matt Rossell, campaign manager at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Teachable moments have hampered proper and legal animal care.”

This policy is now kaput. Going forward, the USDA will now cite all welfare violations in its inspection reports, according to an announcement from Betty Goldentyer, assistant administrator of the agency’s Animal Care program. Reports appear publicly on the USDA website.

“This is good news for animals,” Rossell says.

A USDA spokesperson declined to answer questions about the announcement, but Goldentyer said in a statement that “humane treatment of animals has always been [our] top priority, and we are using all available options to achieve this goal. »

Misleading omissions?

The USDA introduced its Teachable Moments Policy in 2016, stating in the ad that it would allow inspectors and facilities to “work together” to promote compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. “We view teachable moments as an educational approach,” reads the newsletter.

From 2016 to 2020, teachable moments were only accessible through public records requests, which were often heavily redacted and took years to process. In 2020, per instructions from Congress, the USDA began posting teachable moments separately online, but they were still not listed in inspection reports, meaning a facility could have many minor violations while showing a clean inspection record.

In his finance bill 2022, Congress stepped in, ordering the USDA to include all noncompliances in its public inspection reports, at the urging of animal welfare advocates. The USDA complied, officially ending its teachable times policy on August 1.

Violations that were not reported under the Teachable Moments Policy were meant to be minor – they could not be so serious that they “have an adverse impact on the health or well-being of be from an animal,” according to the USDA. animal care inspection guide.

But the USDA has allowed some serious violations to go unreported, animal advocates say. At a Michigan facility named Oswald Bear Ranchfor example, a worker was seen transporting bear cubs in a covered plastic bin in a March 18 video posted on his Instagram account. A month later, the inspectors issued a teachable time for poor ventilation, even though the USDA animal care guidelines explicitly requiring inspectors to cite facilities for ventilation issues.

“This is just one recent example in a long list of instances where the USDA failed to follow its own protocols,” says Brittany Peet, assistant general counsel for the PETA Foundation for Law Enforcement. on animals in captivity.

Although the USDA has publicly maintained that the purpose of teachable moments was to encourage compliance, Peet believes the agency held a pro-business attitude which was aimed at pet stores. The teachable moments policy was “systematically designed to mislead the public about animal welfare law compliance rates,” she says. “We’ve all been lied to by the USDA.”

She cited a 2015 industry meeting for dog breeders, where USDA officials announced the policy of teachable moments as a “response to breeders’ complaints” about laws that restricted purchases from establishments in violation of welfare. Similarly, in a March 2019 meeting with PETA, Peet said Deputy Animal Welfare Administrator Bernadette Juarez acknowledged that the purpose of teachable moments is to protect regulated facilities from the “denigration”.

The USDA has always referred to animal facilities as their clients”, which “shows a warm relationship that’s really problematic,” Rossell says. (Learn more about the USDA’s alleged tendency to overlook animal welfare violations in favor of commercial interests.)

The implementation of teachable moments correlates with a drop in enforcement of the USDA’s Animal Welfare Act, records show. Within two years of the policy’s introduction, welfare citations dropped by 60%, according to a letter 2019 signed by 174 members of Congress. Between 2015 and 2020, enforcement actions taken against licensed pet stores dropped 90%according to a PETA review.

This drop in citations “does not represent a change in care, it represents a change in reporting,” Rossell says. “Oversight organizations like ours depend on these inspection reports and other public records to be able to know what is happening to the animals in these facilities.”

Maintaining discretion

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit zoo accrediting body, supports increased transparency, but Dan Ashe, the organization’s president and CEO, says he hopes the move doesn’t will not send the “inadvertent message that discretion is not appropriate”. Inspectors “must have the latitude to make judgments” about whether certain violations truly warrant a citation, Ashe says.

“USDA inspectors, at some level, have to be trusted to make a decision, like you’d hope a local police officer would,” Ashe says. “If I have a tail light out, or if I drove through a stop sign, or something like that, we all hope that law enforcement officers… will use this opportunity to somehow say sort of, ‘Okay, don’t do it again.’”

Either way, going forward, violations will be found online in animal welfare inspection reports, and facilities with even minor violations will no longer be able to point to clean inspection records as welfare indicators.

After years of criticism, Peet says, it’s unfortunate that Congress had to step in to end the USDA policy, instead of the agency making the change on its own. Either way, she sees this development as a victory for the animals.

“One of the main ways the USDA has been [evading] law enforcement has now been removed from its toolbox,” she says.

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here and send tips, feedback and story ideas to [email protected] Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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