USA First Look

Why did the USDA shut down an online animal abuse database?

An online database containing thousands of records documenting animal abuse in research labs, puppy mills, zoos, and elsewhere suddenly disappeared from the United States Department of Agriculture website on Friday, reportedly because of privacy concerns. 

Two dogs wait to be rescued from a suspected puppy mill in Warm Springs, Arkansas, in February 2015. The Humane Society of the United States and other area organizations assisted the Randolph County Sheriff’s office in the rescue of 46 dogs and 11 other animals.
Lance Murphey/AP for The Humane Society of the United States/File
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An online database documenting animal abuse suddenly disappeared from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website on Friday, sparking outrage among animal rights activists. 

Thousands of inspection reports and other information documenting animals mistreated, injured, or killed at research laboratories, zoos, puppy mills, and elsewhere were removed due to privacy concerns, said the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in a statement. 

But some animal welfare groups believe the move was in response to pressure from industries that rely on animals, as advocates for such businesses have long fought against what they see as excessive government oversight influenced by animal rights groups. 

"There has been tremendous pushback from the industries that exploit animals because the information in that database was used to publicize and expose the abuse of animals," Michael Budkie, the executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, told CNN. "Essentially this is going to help labs and animal dealers and animal breeders who break the law to remain undetected and out of the public eye, because it will slow down the process of obtaining information." 

The shutdown has been decried by animal rights advocates as a reversal of the progress that has been made in recent years to crack down on animal abuse. Last year, the FBI began tracking data on animal cruelty crimes, a move that was widely applauded by both law enforcement and animal activists. A number of states have also proposed or implemented animal abuser registries to ensure that listed offenders aren't able to access animals. 

Advocates for businesses that rely on animals have spoken out against such registries and argued that public USDA records allow animal rights groups to target individual animal owners and animal related businesses. 

"USDA has succumbed to the pressure of animal rights extremists by hiring them into key positions at USDA and by allowing the release of private licensee information knowing full well that it will be used to attack the licensee’s business and customers," wrote Mindy Patterson, president of the Cavalry Group, whose aim is "protecting and defending animal enterprise," in a column last month. "The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was intended to provide transparency to government, not to be used against American citizens, yet this process is being used frequently by animal rights groups whose nefarious use of such private, confidential information is being handed to them by the USDA."

Animal rights advocates and journalists have previously used information in the database to track and expose poor animal treatment at circuses, zoos, and scientific labs. The records were also available to pet stores and members of the public, allowing them to research dog breeders before buying. 

In a statement, APHIS said those who wish to access the removed records will now have to submit a Freedom of Information Act Request, which can take years to process.

"APHIS, during the past year, has conducted a comprehensive review of the information it posts on its website for the general public to view," the statement said, adding: "We remain equally committed to being transparent and responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals with whom we come in contact." 

Mr. Budkie of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! disputes that the decision was driven by concern for privacy, noting that the information removed already had redacted sections and arguing that the documents contained "virtually no personal information." 

A lack of public access to inspection records will make it significantly more difficult for groups to monitor the treatment of animals in labs and elsewhere, he and other advocates say. 

"There was already a troubling lack of transparency about what happens in government-funded labs," Justin Goodman, vice president for advocacy and policy with the White Coat Waste Project, an advocacy group, told The Washington Post. "This was a very important resource for us, and for every animal organization, in terms of tracking patterns of animal use and compliance, whether it’s in labs or other settings." 

It isn't clear whether the decision to remove the documents was driven by newly hired Trump administration officials, the Post reported.