In what's becoming a trend, the Trump administration is walking back another one of its controversial actions following extensive outrage from the public. This time, the USDA has begun reposting deleted documents to its publicly available database of inspection reports on facilities that use animals. But animal rights activists fear the trickle of restored data is intended to make people forget about the issue.
Animal rights advocates are angry over the United States Department of Agriculture's sudden decision to remove the publicly available results of inspection reports about animal treatment at research laboratories and private facilities. The agency says the data will only be available through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Two weeks ago, the United States Department of Agriculture wiped all reports and records of enforcement actions against violators of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act from its website. In a statement, the agency wrote that its reasoning was to protect the privacy of the people who have been found to abuse animals or violate US federal codes. These records are used by activist groups and researchers to track private and government funded research labs, circuses and zoos. The database is also used by the public to keep informed about the practices of breeders and pet stores.
The latest statement from the USDA reads in part:
Today, APHIS is posting the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports for certain Federal research facilities that the Agency regulates under the Animal Welfare Act. The reports posted are part of a comprehensive review of the documents the Agency removed from its website in early February and are in the same redacted form as before.
To conduct the review, the entire agency search tool database was taken off line. As announced on Feb. 7, 2017, the agency will continue to review records and determine which information is appropriate for reposting.
The wording of the statement makes it seem as if the plan all along has been to review the documents and repost them. But the February 7 date is referring to a revision of the initial statement that was released on February 4. The original statement made it appear that from now on, this information would only be available through lengthy Freedom of Information Act requests.
Some documents have begun to reappear on the site, but there are still thousands to go. In an email to Gizmodo, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, writes:
This is an important turnaround and a good start, but the USDA has a lot more to do here. Lawmakers, the press, animal advocates, and even the regulated community want transparency and accessible records.
The Humane Society also notes that years of materials are still missing that are "required to be posted as part of the agency's 2009 settlement with The Humane Society of the United States". Seven US states also have laws that require pet stores to review the USDA database in order to evaluate puppy breeders. The tangle of conflicting laws and judgements seems to have put the agency in a bind.
According to Science Magazine:
The move comes after a public outcry that included, in the last few days: a lawsuit by animal welfare groups; a letter of protest sent to the agency from 18 Senate Democrats; and this letter to President Donald Trump, sent by a bipartisan group of 101 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, demanding that the information be immediately reposted on the public website. The organisations that opposed the document blackout included groups that support medical research with animals, pet store chains, zoos and aquariums, and animal welfare groups. All argued that the lack of transparency would damage public trust and enforcement of animal welfare laws.
Tanya Espinosa, a spokesperson for USDA, told Science that it "will continue posting documents over the next few weeks". Republican congressman Vern Buchanan says that the USDA's restoration of data is still "insufficient". "This website protects animals and the database should be fully restored," he said in a statement.
A blog called The Memory Hole 2 has begun the process of recovering and republishing all of the documents on its own, but that doesn't mean that the people who need the information will know to look there to find it. Russ Kick, who runs the blog, tells Motherboard, "Whenever there are documents that were online, but got pulled offline, they're automatically important." He adds, "Nobody's going to go through the trouble to delete something that doesn't matter."
As the Trump administration has taken power, a lot of valuable information from US government agencies has been erased. Useful info is being scrubbed from the USDA and the Department of Education, and there are clear indications that the EPA is next. But we now have a snapshot of what the EPA website looked like the day before Trump took office. And it's all thanks to FOIA requestors.
Meanwhile, PETA plans to move forward with its lawsuit in coordination with other animal rights groups. A spokesperson writes, "Under duress, the USDA is now attempting to get away with reposting only a tiny fraction of the animal welfare records it suddenly and indefensibly deleted." The only acceptable action to end the lawsuit, the group says, is fully restoring all of the information to the USDA website.