In 2018, the US Department of Agriculture documented 60 percent fewer violations of animal welfare laws at labs, zoos, and pet breeders than it had the prior year, reports The Washington Post.
The agency licenses roughly 8,000 such animal facilities and performs surprise inspections at the sites anywhere from annually to once every few years. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors document “noncompliances” they observe at the facilities including untreated wounds and insufficient shelter for the animals. In 2018, the number of USDA citations was 1,800, down from 4,000 in 2017.
Citations can lead to the offenders facing penalties or hearings, which also dropped in 2018. Critics say the decline in citations represents a gutting of the USDA’s enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, according to the Post.
Even though the total citations fell in 2018, the number of inspection reports that included citations increased by 8 percent, USDA spokesperson Lyndsay Cole tells the Post.
The decrease in citations may reflect an inspector shortage that caused a 5 percent drop in the number of inspections, says Cole. However, the decrease may also be related to changes in enforcement, as the agency now “emphasizes working more closely with licensees, and their veterinarians, to resolve problems. Those interactions are not necessarily documented,” reports the Post, referencing an interview with a USDA official last year.
The USDA appears to be avoiding documenting the violations, Animal Welfare Institute President Cathy Liss, tells the Post. “It’s one thing if you want to reduce the penalty or not take action. But you still should be required to document that they’ve done something,” says Liss.
Animal protection groups and Congress have increasingly scrutinized the USDA’s actions regarding animal welfare after the agency removed records from a publicly available online database in early 2017. While animal advocates argued that these records help keep the USDA and licensed operations accountable, some facilities felt that the records allowed them to be targeted by activists. The USDA restored some of the records, though many were redacted, while others must now be requested from the agency, according to the Post.