REGION — On Friday, Feb. 3, Andrea Cunningham went to the United States Department of Agriculture web page as she does on almost a daily basis to check on inspection reports of so-called “puppy mills.”
For people like Cunningham, an animal welfare activist and founding member of the North County-based group N.O.A.H. – Not One Animal Harmed – the online tool has been a trove of information to help them cast a light on commercial dog kennel owners who keep the animals they raise in substandard conditions.
These animals, often bred in small towns in the Midwest, Rust Belt and South, often make their way to pet stores, where unsuspecting consumers pay thousands for animals that, in some cases, fall ill or have significant problems that wind up costing owners thousands of dollars.
But on that Friday morning, something was different. Cunningham and hundreds of activists were met with the same message: “USDA Animal Search Care Tool- DEACTIVATED.”
Cunningham said her heart sank.
“My first reaction was, ‘We’re not going to get the information we can to help consumers make the most informed choice about where they are getting their dog.”
For many in the fight against puppy mills, Cunningham’s sentiment rang true: the USDA was suddenly cutting off the lifeblood of information that has fueled the progress they have seen across the country, including in San Diego, where multiple cities have adopted retail pet store bans in a large part due to the reports linking animals at the shops to scofflaw kennels.
“We as a movement, as an organization, as activists, as concerned citizens and legislators as well have relied on that accessibility of that information for years,” said Elizabeth Oreck, the national manager of the Best Friends Animal Society’s puppy mill initiatives.
Best Friends runs the nation’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary and is a national leader in animal welfare. Oreck, in her capacity with Best Friends, has been involved with the passage of nearly every local ordinance regulating pet stores.
“For the USDA to remove it puts a lot of the progress that we have made in jeopardy,” Oreck said.
But groups across the country, including locally, are fighting the USDA’s shift in policy, vowing not to rest until the records are available.
Changes made to protect privacy
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees these records, said in a statement on the website that it chose to deactivate the inspection tool in an effort to protect individual privacy of proprietors in the records.
The change was partly due to ongoing legal battles over, among other things, the information posted on the website.
“The agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy,” the statement reads. “In 2016, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. In addition, 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,” the statement continues. “These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”
The records are still available through written requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, but the process to obtain records via FOIA is cumbersome and long, taking months — and in some cases years — to process, activists said.
“The wheels of government turn very, very slowly,” Cunningham said. “It’s like saying, ‘yeah, you can have free healthcare, but you need to jump through this hoop, and then that hoop.’ Just because they make it available doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”
Cunningham said she didn’t buy the argument that the change was due to privacy concerns, pointing to a change last year that required the public to create a login to access the records.
“The USDA wanted to know who was asking for the information,” Cunningham said. “Which sounded to me like they were protecting the predators from us as opposed to protecting us from the predators.”
What’s at stake?
Activists aren’t the only ones who suffer from the lack of availability of records, Oreck said. In many ways, the new laws affect consumers and pet shop owners as much as they do the advocates working behind the scenes, she said.
Consumers could use the database to search up the breeder or kennel where the dog was raised, and could learn for themselves if the animal was subject to substandard living conditions that could have an impact on its health.
Pet stores in communities where laws have been passed that regulate where the animals are purchased relied on the reports to determine if breeders were in violation of the Animal Welfare Act or had suspended licenses, with whom they can’t do business according to the local ordinances.
And ultimately, without that information, consumers are left unprotected and in situations where they are forced to give their pets to shelters, where taxpayers pick up the burden, Cunningham said.
“This is a consumer fraud issue,” she said. “This is a taxpayer issue. This isn’t just about animal cruelty.”
Oreck echoed her sentiments.
“If a pet store can’t access information and the public can’t access information, those laws become moot because they become completely unenforceable,” Oreck said. “It gives the public no way of knowing the origin of pets for sale, which is a consumer protection issue and of grave concern to us.”
Additionally, both women, said, inspection reports from commercial kennels aren’t the only documents the department had on the database. It included all of the agency’s inspections of facilities that perform animal research as well.
Activists fight back
Locally and nationally, activists have picked themselves up after the initial shock and dismay and fought to have the USDA reverse its decision.
“I think everyone felt bewildered, betrayed, concerned, and yet inspired to fight,” Oreck said. “These folks who have been fighting on behalf of animals are not going to back off, they are committed to protecting animals and will not allow for any of the great progress that we’ve made reversed.”
This week, several organizations, including PETA, an animal law expert at Harvard University, the Beagle Freedom Project, and others filed a federal lawsuit in Washington DC that demands the documents be reposted to the online database.
Additionally, the groups have encouraged members to lobby local, state and nationally elected leaders — as well as the USDA — demanding that the database be restored.
“It is not an issue that is going to go away quietly until it is resolved,” Oreck said. “This is a grassroots effort, and people are realizing they have a lot of power with their voice, and they’re using it.”
Cunningham said that her organization and others locally have inundated the offices of U.S. Reps Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) with calls.
“We are making a difference,” Cunningham said.
The Coast News has reached out to David Salinas, a pet store owner who has been in the front line of several pet store bans, as well as Protect the Harvest, an organization that has lobbied nationally against such bans and what they refer on their website as “threats posed by animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists.”
We will update the story with comment from both organizations as it becomes available.