Immediately upon assuming office, the Trump administration directed the US Department of Agriculture to take down the extensive records of its publicly funded investigations of animal cruelty in America; now, Americans can only access their own data by paying for expensive, unweildy, and slow Freedom of Information Act requests to the USDA.
The agency claims it removed the records to protect the privacy of the persons named in them, but the records had always been redacted for this purpose prior to their publication on the USDA website.
Animal-rights groups are suing the USDA to reverse the policy and restore the records. Previously, the records have served as a critical source for investigative journalists who documents gruesome cruelty at zoos, labs, and in agribusiness.
The burden of making public a trove of information on animal welfare—how animals are suffering nationwide, who the perpetrators are, and where there may be holes in current legislation—now largely falls to third parties. Mother Jones's West, whose story about the roadside zoo relied heavily on the USDA APHIS database, points out how cumbersome a task this will be for nonprofit watchdog organizations: "They're cash-strapped and overworked, and it shouldn't be their responsibility to be the reservoir of public information. It's the government's role."
AZA's Dan Ashe sees the USDA's actions as a blow to accountability. If these records aren't made readily available, "you can only really reach one conclusion, and that is that the public's ability to hold these institutions accountable will be diminished."
Born Free's Roberts agrees.
"Transparency is vital to democracy, and the USDA should reverse course and reopen access to information online," he says. "I assume they will—unless they have something to hide."
U.S. Animal Abuse Records Deleted—What We Stand to Lose [Natasha Daly/National Geographic]
(Image: Gestation crates, Farm Sanctuary, CC-BY)