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What do changes at the U.S. Department of Agriculture mean for animals?
The Animal Welfare Act regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers, and the USDA’s website previously published reports on animal welfare violations at various facilities — including roadside zoos, circuses, puppy mills, pet stores, research labs, and more. This information is no longer readily available to the public and is now only accessible via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which can take years to process. This also makes it more difficult for the media and state and local government officials concerned with animal welfare to investigate animal cruelty cases and pass legislation to hold animal abusers accountable. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which maintained the online database, cited privacy concerns in explaining the changes – but these published records were already heavily redacted.
We’re especially concerned with what this means for wild animals used in entertainment. Wild animals in attractions like circuses and roadside zoos suffer significantly, all in the name of entertainment. Elephants kept in captivity to perform in circuses, for example, undergo cruel training to allow them to safely perform and interact with people. They may then spend their lives chained and denied interaction with other elephants, living in captive conditions that cannot meet their needs. APHIS records were crucial to investigations of Ringling Bros.’ treatment of its elephants, which led to much-needed increased public awareness of the behind-the-scenes suffering of elephants in entertainment. The USDA records have also revealed animal welfare violations at roadside zoos and sanctuaries, allowing visitors to better assess which facilities provide genuine care for animals and which facilities may not be legitimate.
Animal welfare is a bipartisan priority – but more significantly, protecting animals is important to the American public. All thanks to changing public demand, Ringling Bros. retired their elephants from performances in 2016 and announced earlier this year that the company is closing altogether, due to dwindling attendance. Last year, we saw a milestone for marine mammals in captivity when, after years of public outcry, SeaWorld committed to ending orca breeding and captivity. American consumers have repeatedly shown that they care how captive animals are treated – and will speak with their voices and their wallets to protect them.
Transparency is crucial for holding facilities and individuals that abuse animals accountable, and we urge the USDA to restore these records to public view. And you can help. Following public outcry, the USDA has said that the removal of information from its website may only be temporary – so let’s keep speaking up. Together, we’ll raise our voices to protect animals from harm.