Groups Take Aim at USDA for Animal Welfare Document Takedown | NBC Southern California
Donald Trump's First 100 Days in Office

Donald Trump's First 100 Days in Office

The latest news on President Donald Trump's first 100 days

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"

    processing...

    NEWSLETTERS

    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.

    Trump Tax Reform Plan Cuts Personal and Corporate Rates

    [NATL] New Trump Tax Reform Plan Cuts Personal and Corporate Rates

    A tax reform plan outlined by the Trump administration two days before the president's 100th day in office proposes deep cuts to personal income tax as well as corporate taxes. The plan also repeals the estate tax. 

    (Published 2 hours 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. 

    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.

    Trump Looks to Cut Corporate Tax Rates With New Plan

    [NATL] Trump Looks to Cut Corporate Tax Rates With New Plan

    The Trump Administration, along with House Republican lawmakers, is looking slash corporate tax rates in a new outline coming out three days before Donald Trump's 100th day in office. Trump has also given up on his $1 billion request from Congress to fund a wall between Mexico and the United States. 

    (Published 43 minutes ago)

    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. 

    Trump Pledges to 'Confront Anti-Semitism'

    [NATL] On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump Pledges to 'Confront Anti-Semitism'

    President Donald Trump on Tuesday gave his strongest condemnation of anti-semitism to date, pledging to "stamp out prejudice," "condemn hatred," "bear witness" and "act" against bigotry against Jewish communities and Israel. He spoke on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Capitol Hill. 

    (Published Tuesday, April 25, 2017)

    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.

    Lawmakers Suggest Former Trump Aide Flynn Broke US Law

    [NATL] Lawmakers Suggest Former Trump Aide Flynn Broke US Law

     President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, appeared to violate federal law when he failed to seek permission or inform the U.S. government about accepting tens of thousands of dollars from Russian organizations after a trip there in 2015, leaders of a House oversight committee said Tuesday

    (Published Tuesday, April 25, 2017)

    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.

    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.

    Obama Focuses on 'Next Generation' of Leadership

    [NATL] Obama Discusses the Importance of Youth for American Politics

    In his first post-presidency event, former President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of preparing the "next generation" of leaders to navigate American politics. "The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are young people," he said during his address at the University of Chicago. 

    (Published Monday, April 24, 2017)

    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.

    North Korea Issues New Threat

    [NATL] North Korea Issues New Threat as USS Carl Vinson Makes Way to Korean Peninsula

    North Korea issued a new threat to the United States as the USS Carl Vinson made its way to the Korean Peninsula, calling the deployment "extremely dangerous" and threatening to turn the group to "piles of steel" if the U.S. attacks. Meanwhile, the North Korean government stayed silent on the detainment of U.S. citizen Tony Kim, who was working at a Pyongyang university before he was detained. 

    (Published Monday, April 24, 2017)

    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. 

    Trump Talks With Record-Breaking Space Station Commander

    [NATL] Trump Talks NASA Bill With Record-Breaking ISS Commander

    President Donald Trump speaks with Peggy Whitson, the commander of the International Space Station and the American astronaut to have spent the longest time in space, on what funding means to NASA, when the first human might travel to Mars and the realities of living in space. 

    (Published Monday, April 24, 2017)

    "[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.

    Trump Denies Giving Up on Health Care Bill

    [NATL] 'We'll Get Both' Trump Denies Giving Up on Health Care Bill, Says GOP Will Also Have Spending Bill

    President Donald Trump denied that the White House gave up on a GOP-sponsored health care bill, despite the issues surrounding the so-called "American Health Care Act" on March. Trump said there was a "great plan" for health care reform, as well as a spending bill. 

    (Published Thursday, April 20, 2017)

    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.

    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.