A recent article in the Washington Post brought to light a trend NAVS has also noticed: the USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have been issuing drastically fewer citations to facilities that house animals that are protected by the Animal Welfare Act, including research laboratories. Fewer than 1,800 citations were issued in 2018—this represents a huge drop from the more than 4,000 citations issued the previous year.
While this may, at first, seem like a positive development, NAVS questions the cause of this significant drop in citations, as evidence points not to improved conditions for animals, but to weaker enforcement of federal law that allows more leniency for those who violate the AWA.
There are three main concerns that we have:
- Changes in the way Animal Welfare Act violations are reported may actually be masking an increased level of non-compliance with the AWA.
- Even before these changes were implemented, there was a history of lax enforcement by APHIS, which continues today.
- APHIS’ record keeping is keeping the public in the dark regarding the specifics of animal use, including Animal Welfare Act violations.
Let’s start with the changes to violation reporting. In a recent search of Tennessee research facilities using dogs and cats, a review of 18 research facilities showed that 1,225 dogs and 530 cats were used by 16 of these facilities, with many other animals used as well. Half of the research institutions were cited for violations from 2016-18. Only two critical citations were issued, which concerned the death of two animals (a primate and a rabbit) and 29 non-critical incidents were reported during the same period, some of them for repeat offenses, though not marked as such.
Under the previous reporting system, there were three types of violations: Direct (affecting the health of animal[s]); Indirect (not directly affecting the animal’s health) and Repeat (for licensees who have been cited previously for the same problem and have not corrected them). Any violations conforming to these categories were on each facilities inspection report, with the number of each of these violations.
In 2018, APHIS adopted new categories for violations: While the “Direct” category for violations was retained, there is now no longer a category for repeat violations. Moreover, APHIS has adopted a policy of “teachable moments” for minor “Non-Critical Items” identified during an inspection that meet certain criteria. These “teachable moments” are undefined, and are not cited on an Inspection Report. Inspectors can instead allow the facility’s personnel to learn the proper protocols, such as always keeping a tight lid on a garbage can. This new policy may contribute to the lower number of citations issued.
Paired with our second concern—years of known negligence by inspectors—this is particularly worrisome. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office criticized APHIS inspectors for their lax oversight of dog breeders, where inspections were not properly documented. Those violations that were found yielded little or no enforcement action in levying civil fines or suspending licenses, which are mandated under the AWA. This hasn’t changed—and the new regulations make it easier for non-compliant behavior to continue unchecked because there is no record of repeat offenses in the inspection report. This will make it virtually impossible to establish patterns of violations by facilities, except in the most egregious circumstances.
The discovery of the violation drop comes in the wake of our third concern: the 2017 removal of APHIS’ public online database of inspection reports, which crippled the ability for NAVS and other animal advocates to access data that helps to inform the work that we do. The database has since been restored, but much of the information is still missing, redacted, or can only be obtained through time-consuming and costly Freedom of Information Act requests.
It’s difficult not to see a correlation between the removal of the searchable database and the changes in the way APHIS issues citations. NAVS will continue to put pressure on the USDA, APHIS and those in power until full transparency and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act is restored.