Why I Sued the USDA

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

 

As a longtime animal law practitioner, I’ve represented various parties in lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). But I’d never sued the agency—or anyone else—myself. Until this past Monday.

Like many, I was stunned when the USDA deleted thousands of Animal Welfare Act-related records from its website. The same day that the blackout occurred, law reviews opened up their submission season and I was gearing up to submit two pieces scrutinizing the USDA’s implementation of the Animal Welfare Act through close analysis of the now-deleted records. If the agency’s goal had been to stymie my work, it couldn’t have timed things better.

Of course, the records weren’t wiped from the website because of me. But why were they? According to the USDA, they were deleted “[b]ased on [its] commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.” The first two proffered bases are beyond Orwellian. The third is specious at best. Thousands of the records that the agency deleted have nothing to do with individuals with privacy rights but, corporations and universities that have no such rights. Moreover, the USDA already redacted information before posting records.

usda-acis

There has been much speculation about what might lie behind the agency’s decision to shield its practices from scrutiny. We won’t know the real impetus until the agency produces records about that decision. But the bottom line is that the blackout is unlawful regardless of the motivation. It violates the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) mandate that agencies post records online, including frequently requested records. Before the USDA began posting Animal Welfare Act inspection reports online years ago, it acknowledged that they “were the most frequently requested APHIS records under FOIA.”

As the Supreme Court has recognized repeatedly, the core purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is “to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny” and to facilitate “the citizens’ right to be informed about what their government is up to.” Central to this purpose is ensuring that “information that sheds light on an agency’s performance of its statutory duties” is publicly available.

Public scrutiny of the USDA’s performance of its duties under the Animal Welfare Act is especially important given its utter failure to fulfill the purposes of the Act. As the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General has repeatedly and consistently found, the agency has implemented the law ineffectively, leaving countless animals to suffer. The most recent Inspector General audit found that the USDA “did not make the best use of its limited resources” in enforcing the Animal Welfare Act; failed to follow its own criteria in closing dozens of cases involving grave violations like animal deaths; grossly reduced penalties, rendering them a mere cost of doing business; and failed to adequately monitor animal experiments, reducing assurances that animals receive “basic humane care and treatment.” Time and time again the Office of the Inspector General has made similarly damning findings. Indeed, the most recent audit notes that three prior audits had found that “enforcement of AWA was ineffective” and that the miniscule penalties being assessed “did not deter violators.” My research confirm that these problems persist.

The USDA’s egregious and longstanding disregard of its statutory duties screams out for more—not less—oversight.

This is especially true given the deep public interest in animal welfare, made clear yet again by the overwhelming outcry in the days following the blackout. When the Animal Welfare Act was passed in the mid-1960s, Congress had received more mail about animal welfare than civil rights and the Vietnam War combined.  As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has recognized, “Congress acted with the public’s interests in mind” in passing and amending the Animal Welfare Act. Animal welfare is also deeply bipartisan, as a letter to President Trump from nearly 100 hundred House members on both sides of the aisle demanding that the records be restored online makes clear.

When Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) led the charge in passing important amendments to the Animal Welfare Act in 1985, he emphasized the “need to ensure the public that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent unnecessary abuses to animals, and that everything possible is being done to decrease the pain of animals during experimentation and testing.” The new administration should be working hard to fulfill this still unmet need—not to aggravate the situation. That’s why I’ve sued the USDA.

Santa Cruz Biotech fine too little, too late

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

This piece originally appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently levied the largest fine in the history of the Animal Welfare Act, which will turn 50 this summer. In an unprecedented settlement agreement, Santa Cruz Biotechnology agreed to $3.5 million in penalties and to surrender its Animal Welfare Act license.

Animal protection groups have lauded the settlement, and, to be sure, getting this chronic animal welfare violator out of the business is huge. But it is also too little, too late.

While $3.5 million is nothing to scoff at, it is less than 1 percent of the more than $20 billion in potential fines Santa Cruz Biotech faced. And the Department of Agriculture made itself complicit in untold animal suffering when, year after year, it renewed the company’s Animal Welfare Act license despite knowing of chronic egregious violations.

As one of the world’s largest suppliers of antibodies — an industry valued at more than $80 billion — Santa Cruz Biotech is big business. The company has profited immensely from the suffering it has illegally inflicted on animals including routinely failing to provide minimally sufficient veterinary care to sick and injured animals. Continue reading

“Rabbit, rabbit” or “Night of the Lepus”–it’s your choice

10426311_10153130585852392_2191799719262181905_n-1Kathleen Stachowski    Other Nations

Soon it will be April 1st, and for those of you with superstitious or folklorish proclivities, remember to say “rabbit, rabbit!” (or “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!”) first thing upon waking–before speaking any other words. You might even go so far as to perambulate through the house saying it in each room. This ritual is to be repeated as every new month dawns. I just recently learned of this age-old practice from my friend Tracy, who rescues rabbits and runs an education campaign endearingly called Rabbitron (websiteFacebook), named after her first bunny and serving as a tribute to that worthy lagomorph.   Continue reading

Cosmetics testing on animals: Do you know as much as an 8th grader?

mouse

Click image for Leaping Bunny


Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”  ~The Lorax

The students were looking forward to my visit, the teacher revealed before their arrival in the classroom. They’d been studying the use of animals in cosmetics testing and education when she initially contacted me to ask about a guest speaker.

As a former teacher myself–and one who’s spent some time with 8th graders–I had judiciously inquired about the use of graphic images. The shocking side of animal testing for cosmetic use and vivisection can be too upsetting and graphic for this student group, she told me, mentioning their empathic natures. By the time of my visit, she explained, they’d have some idea about what goes on in laboratories anyhow. She asked if I could talk about how to change laws and educate others, what people are doing for animals, why we should care, and how students can take action if so inclined.   Continue reading

Which animals would St. Francis bless today?

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

click image

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Blessing of the Animals offered by churches during October, usually near the Oct. 4th Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. In fact, non-Catholic denominations frequently conduct their own animal blessing services, and why not–what’s not to love?!? Heck, you don’t even have to be religious to find beauty in this simple, compassionate gesture. Continue reading

The Men Who Prune Goats

peta2.com-click on image

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

The Coast Guard motto is Sempre Paratus, “always ready.” We can rest assured that, when the need arises, they will indeed be ready to clip the legs off living goats using tree branch trimmers. They’ve apparently undergone rigorous training in Virginia to perform this very act.

A whistleblower caught the heinous deed on video and PETA released it. The Coast Guard is defending the use of live animals in combat medical training, saying,

“Animals used in trauma training are supported and monitored by well-trained, experienced veterinary staff to ensure that appropriate anesthesia and analgesia prevent them from experiencing pain or distress.” Continue reading

Reducing Funding for Animal Research

Usra Hussain

The University of Pennsylvania houses as many as 5,000 animals a year at their medical and veterinary schools.  Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an official warning letter to the University of Pennsylvania for its “failure to establish programs of adequate veterinary care” for some of its research animals.  Over a course of three years, reports have stated, that the Ivy League institution may be responsible for up to 115 violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The inspections also noted that, “two dogs had interdigital cysts (often from standing on wire flooring); dirty and algae-filled water containers for four horses, and three gerbil deaths that occurred because of ‘unsuitable sipper tubes.”  In another incident  at Penn, a newborn puppy was found dead, trapped beneath a floor grate. The puppy had slipped through the grate unnoticed, and an unknown amount of time passed before his death.

The University of Pennsylvania had more than double the amount of violations in comparison to other Ivy League schools.  The Agriculture Department, which regulates research facilities that use animals, and  the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found that the eight Ivy League universities had what it called “disturbingly high numbers of Animal Welfare Act violations,” many of which were repeat or severe. Despite these violations, the University of Pennsylvania continues to receive the highest amount of federal research funding among all Ivy League Schools.  According to PCRM, University of Pennsylvania received $1.4 billion from the National Institutes of Health since 2008 for researching.  Continue reading