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Groups Take Aim at USDA for Animal Welfare Document Takedown

"This isn’t just about animal welfare. The Animal Welfare Act also regulates important human safety issues"

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    Groups Take Aim at USDA for Animal Welfare Document Takedown
    Getty Images, File
    The Department of Agriculture building is shown in this August 30, 2006 file photo in Washington DC. Groups and individuals are hitting back against the USDA for removing inspection reports and enforcement actions, among other records, from its site in early February.

    Thousands of public records about animal welfare have vanished from the internet, part of a government database that included atrocious puppy mill conditions, improper veterinary care and other mistreatment of animals. Now activists are hitting back at the USDA in the courtroom and by posting deleted records online.

    The United States' Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) cited ongoing litigation and privacy concerns as the reason for its database's removal two months ago.

    APHIS, an agency under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), previously hosted open records on its website pertaining to the administration of the Animal Welfare Act. The law regulates the treatment of animals in research facilities, maintains a minimum standard of care for warm-blooded animals and requires cats and dogs to be held in pounds for five days before being released to dealers. Included in the records are inspection reports, research facility reports and enforcement actions. The documents provide information on animal experiments, puppy mill conditions and the treatment of animals at circuses, among other things.

    APHIS' explanation for the documents' removal wasn't sufficient for those passionate about animal rights, or defenders of public information. They say the information is crucial for public oversight, and that it takes away animal-rights groups' ability to ensure the law is being enforced. 

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    One man took it upon himself to collect and post thousands of the deleted documents using his website The Memory Hole.

    "When I first heard that the database had been pulled offline, I remember I proactively grabbed some of those documents," said Russ Kick, a writer and editor who runs the site.

    While some of the records were the result of his own research, many have been sent to him by others who have also taken interest in the deletion of APHIS' database.

    Talk of scrubbing the database began before President Donald Trump's administration took office in January. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post in February the department responsible for enforcing the Horse Protection and Animal Welfare acts had recommended removing the database from the web and making the documents available through a Freedom of Information Act request. He said he did not act on the recommendation because he did not have enough time left to review it before leaving his job. 

    The documents were removed from the department's website in early February, and only some have been returned since. Some enforcement records are also available on the Office of Administrative Law Judges' website. 

    Delcianna Winders, an academic fellow in the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School, said that no new enforcement records had been posted online since 2016. 

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    On its website, APHIS said it decided to make adjustments to posting the records before the change of administration. 

    "In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency's website," the agency said on its site. 

    Though APHIS said it is defending against the litigation, its statement added, "in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy."

    Kick, with The Memory Hole, isn't alone in his effort to share the documents with the public.

    Winders, who uses the documents for her own work at Harvard, sent thousands of the records she's saved to Kick to publish on his site.

    "The impact is huge, I don’t think it can be overstated," she said of the documents' removal.

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    Numerous groups use the records regularly in order to ensure that the agency is complying with the Animal Welfare Act, she added. 

    "Those laws have basically become unenforceable now," she said.

    She isn’t the only one who feels that way.

    "Animals across the country are in jeopardy so long as the USDA's illegal deletion of records continues," said Brittany Peet, the director of captive animal law enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

    She said PETA is part of a coalition that has filed a lawsuit against the USDA to force them to restore the documents. Winders is a plaintiff in the same lawsuit, according to the complaint.

    PETA has also made available through a Dropbox over 21,000 of its own copies of the deleted records, which Kick also said he linked to on his site.

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    APHIS has restored some of the deleted documents, but the amount is a far cry from the volume that had been maintained online for years, experts say.

    In a statement to NBC, APHIS spokesperson Tanya Espinosa said the agency began reposting some information online on Feb. 17. The statement added that people can submit FOIA requests for the records.

    "If the same records are frequently requested via the Freedom of Information Act process, APHIS may post the appropriately redacted versions to its website," Espinosa said.

    Kathleen Conlee, vice president of Animal Research Issues at the Humane Society of the U.S., said her organization won’t stop working until all of the information is restored. 

    "[This] has a major impact on the public and consumers and it spans a wide avenue of animal issues," Conlee told NBC.

    Peet echoed Conlee’s sentiment, saying, "This isn’t just about animal welfare. The Animal Welfare Act also regulates important human safety issues."

    Some of these issues include being able to find out about diseases at zoos, or attacks by dangerous, captive animals, she said.

    This isn't the first time animal rights groups have had to battle it out with the USDA.

    In the early 2000’s, Conlee said, the same information was inaccessible for a short time. The organization filed a lawsuit, which resulted in a settlement that compelled APHIS to make documents public.

    All annual reports, including pain and distress information, had to be made available to the public electronically. The USDA was also forced to indicate on its site which facilities didn't submit annual reports. 

    The Humane Society issued a notice of violation of court order and intent to enforce or reopen the lawsuit in February shortly after the documents were removed from the internet. The notice states that the USDA violated the terms of the 2009 agreement.

    APHIS hasn’t always received a gold star for its enforcement of the law, either — something experts were quick to point out.

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    In a 2014 report, the Office of the Inspector General "cites specific examples of enforcement deficiencies, poor oversight, inadequate penalties, lack of deterrence, and many examples of animals suffering and dying," according to the Animal Welfare Institute.

    Politicians are also backing efforts to get the records fully restored through legislation to compel the agency to make the documents public.

    Peet said public scrutiny has been the primary thing holding the agency's feet to the fire when it comes to ensuring that basic animal welfare standards are upheld.

    "And that's been taken away," she said.