In early February, the United States Department of Agriculture removed an online database from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The database contained thousands of records pertaining to the Animal Welfare Act, which is a federal law that protects animals.
The records, which have been available online for decades, have been used by animal welfare advocates to monitor the treatment of animals in laboratories, circuses and zoos. Journalists also used them to document abuses and violations at universities using animals for scientific research.
The database's sudden removal generated outrage from activists across the country, who say it leaves the door wide open for animal abuse. Going forward, anyone seeking the information contained in the database must submit a Freedom of Information Act request, which can take years to fulfill.
The information was removed due to privacy concerns, and the decision to delete the database was made in 2016, "well before the change of Administration," Tanya Espinosa, spokesperson for USDA-APHIS writes in an email. Espinosa adds that "[APHIS is] currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency's website. While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy. These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo calls the removal of the database "shameful." Jeremy Beckham, research specialist for Beagle Freedom Project says in an email that deleting the database is a blow to transparency that could essentially halt what the LA-based nonprofit does.
"It will make it much harder for us to reach out to laboratories that experiment on dogs to help find homes for the survivors of animal testing," he says. Beagle Freedom Project used the database to conduct a mass mailing to every laboratory in the country that uses dogs and cats in testing and scientific experiments to find them adoptive homes. "While BFP still has some information concerning where dogs are being used in experimentation based on past data we procured, the sad truth is that if tomorrow a laboratory starts experimenting on dogs and cats, we won't have any way of even knowing," Beckham says. “This is a giant step backward.”
Beckham also says APHIS's claim that the removal is about privacy doesn't hold up to scrutiny because the information is still available by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. "While filing a FOIA request is a much more time-consuming and arduous process than the online database, if these records contained information that violated the privacy rights of individuals, why would they still be made available with a FOIA request?"
But not everyone disagrees with APHIS's decision to remove the database. Mindy Patterson, president and co-founder of The Cavalry Group works to protect the rights to own animals and operate animal-oriented businesses from “attacks by animal rights extremists.”
Patterson notes in an email that her members applaud the change. "The USDA has been releasing information to animal rights extremists and activist organizations, knowing that the information would be used wrongfully against USDA licensees, and with the intent to run them out of business."
Not so, says Beagle Freedom Project's Beckham. "If individuals are wrongfully using objective data, that doesn't justify purging the data, it only demands that others counter the false information with facts,” he says. "Removing the only set of objective data we have on this issue is anti-scientific and only serves to further poison our national discourse."
Beckham says Beagle Freedom Project's legal team is already looking at ways to force the government to reverse its decision, and also plans to use this opportunity to work with state and local legislators to strengthen reporting laws. The Humane Society of the United States also sent a letter to the Justice Department threatening legal action if it did not make the records public.