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USDA scrubs animal welfare data from website; Humane Society threatens to sue

[1]

A neglected horse at the Haven in Raeford, which was shut down by Hoke County officials in January 2016. More than 1,000 animals lived at the “no-kill” facility, which had operated for 10 years, with no substantive penalty from state officials. The Haven’s owners, Linden and Stephen Spear, were charged with several counts of animal cruelty. Unlike the federal government, the NC Agriculture Department makes its animal inspection records publicly available on its website.(Photo: ASCPA)

Vital public records of more than 9,000 licensed animal facilities — commercial dog breeding operators, Tennessee walking horse show participants, roadside zoos, animal research labs, and other operations regulated under federal law — disappeared late last week from the US Department of Agriculture website [2]. Now, the Humane Society of the United States is threatening to sue the USDA, asserting that removing that information violates a 2009 settlement agreement between the two parties.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, blogged today [3] about the group’s intent to sue if necessary:

The nonprofit animal welfare group is challenging “this outrageous action that undermines longstanding consensus about public access to information concerning these laws, and frustrates state, local, and industry efforts to help enforce them.

The public information, scrubbed without notice, included inspection documents, annual reports from research facilities and enforcement records. Not only do animal welfare groups use these records, but also law enforcement agencies when they are investigating allegations of abuse or neglect.

In a letter dated today [4], HSUS attorneys notified the US Department of Justice that if the information is not restored online, the group intends to reopen the lawsuit that led to the settlement agreement. The letter goes on to cite 1996 and 2016 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that require these records to be posted electronically. While these paper versions of these records are ostensibly available via FOIA, it can take months or even years for federal agencies to fill those requests.

HSUS said it plans to take further action unless “USDA reconsiders this bizarre reversal of the agency’s longstanding policy …”

In North Carolina, the Animal Welfare Section of the state agriculture department posts inspection reports of animal shelters [5], both public and private. These records alerted the public to a famous hoarding and neglect case at the Haven [6] in Hoke County, where more than 1,000 animals lived — and even more died — on a farm outside of Raeford. The records [7] described horrible living conditions: animals exposed to the weather, crammed into cages, and lacking adequate food and water. Although state officials revoked the Haven’s license, it never followed through on fining the owner, Linden Spear. For at least 10 years, the Haven was allowed to operate. Then in January 2016, Hoke County Sheriff’s Department and the ASPCA seized more than 600 animals; Spear and her husband, Stephen Spear, were charged with animal cruelty and illegal possession of a controlled substance, a federal offense. They have not yet gone to trial.