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"We are not aware of any previous agency data purge of this scope," says ASPCA. (Photo: iStock)

Animal Rights Groups Sue Over Unprecedented USDA Website Blackout

'The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny'

Deirdre Fulton

Leading animal rights groups sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Monday over the removal of animal welfare records from its website early this month. 

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by PETA, Beagle Freedom Project, Born Free USA, and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, along with public health advocacy group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Harvard animal law and policy fellow Delcianna Winders, demands the reinstatement of the records, which included thousands of inspection reports, research facility reports, and violations at zoos, research laboratories, and commercial breeders.

"The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny," Winders said in a statement. 

The USDA took down the records on February 3, citing privacy concerns. The agency said those seeking the information would henceforth be required to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The Humane Society of the United States said at the time: "This action benefits no one, except facilities who have harmed animals and don't want anyone to know."

As The Dodo noted:

The recently disappeared reports include information about SeaWorld, dog breeders, and puppy mills, zoos, circuses (including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) and taxpayer-funded animal testing labs, among others.

[...] "We've been the USDA's watchdog for 20 years," Deborah Howard, president of the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), told The Dodo recently, explaining that CAPS investigators use the USDA reports to show which pet shops are sourcing their dogs from puppy mills. "We compare our findings to the inspectors. If we didn't have those reports, we wouldn't be able to do our inspections."

The removal came amidst reports of other federal agencies scrubbing critical data and research from their websites under the Trump administration.

Indeed, Deborah Dubow Press of the ASPCA told Teen Vogue, "It happened just two weeks after President Trump took office. It's a very detrimental and disappointing action out of the gate from our new president. It does not leave us very hopeful."

Press told the outlet: "We are not aware of any previous agency data purge of this scope."

As such, the decision received significant public scrutiny and was the subject of a social media campaign under the hashtags #AnimalWelfare and #NoUSDABlackout. 

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