BEYOND DOG BY DOG: INSIDE THE USDA DECISION ON AWA PUBLIC RECORDS (Part 1)

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Christopher E. Grimes, Director of DOG BY DOG
February 11, 2017

In a stunning and abrupt move last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) removed from their website all public inspection reports on facilities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), including thousands of large-scale commercial dog breeders. At the USDA Western Regional Office for Animal Care, the decision came without any advanced notice nor direction on how to handle the incoming flood of requests for comment from the public or press. One official noted “There had been an interagency review for the past year on privacy concerns raised by regulated industries, but no one knew [the website] was going to come down or even that a final decision had been made.”

The interagency review began during the Obama Administration and the understanding across the department was that Secretary Vilsack and senior USDA leadership wanted the records removed. The recent decision to immediately remove them last week was “stunning” and the timing came as a “particular surprise” to our source since it came without direction or even the confirmation of President Trump’s pick to head the department, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

This internal look into the rollout of a major policy shift within the USDA was provided by an official at the Western Regional Office for Animal Care and confirmed by sources at USDA Headquarters in Riverdale, MD and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. All sources requested anonymity out of concern for their current positions. Based on the relationships we built with these individuals during the production of DOG BY DOG, we are confident in their assessments.

The only reasonable conclusion for scrubbing all inspection records from the USDA website is to protect AWA regulated entities from public scrutiny. There is literally no public good served by denying the public easy access to inspection records that show if a facility is meeting minimal standards. DOG BY DOG would not exist without access to AWA records.

Having dealt with Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) requests, it is a laughable proposition that allowing the public to submit requests for inspection reports satisfies the basic understanding of transparency and good governance. Submitting a FIOA request is a long and cumbersome process that requires a detailed description of exact specifics and disclosure is ultimately an arbitrary decision from anonymous governmental officials.

Regardless of the reasons behind the sudden decision to remove these inspection reports from their website, the result is obvious: It protects the worst large-scale commercial dog breeders and denies the public easy access to these public records.

This decision puts those of us that care about the dogs trapped in puppy mills two-steps back. Before this horrendous decision, the goal was to press the USDA to enforce the current law and advocate for better protections for animals including veterinarian care, living space, and socialization. Now we are forced back into fighting for simple, easy access to inspection records of federally regulated facilities!

We will fight this decision as documentarians who believe easy access to records should be available to all and as citizens that believe when tax dollars are used to inspect a regulated facility, we have a right to access the records.

The confirmation hearing for Sonny Perdue has yet to be scheduled. NOW is the perfect time to contact your Senators on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and demand they question Governor Perdue on his commitment to public access to these records. This is a major policy shift and these Senators should demand he articulate clearly his commitment to a open, transparent agency. If you do not have contact information for your US Senators (and/or Representatives) then text your zip code to 520-200-2223 and you will receive information almost immediately. I tested it myself and all the information I received back was correct.

MEMBERS – Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

Pat Roberts (R – Kansas)
Debbie Stabenow (D – Michigan)
Thad Cochran (R – Mississppi)
Patrick Leahy (D – Vermont)
Mitch McConnell (R – Kentucky)
Sherrod Brown (D – Ohio)
John Boozman (R – Arkansas)
Amy Klobuchar (D – Minnesota)
John Hoeven (R – North Dakota)
Michael Bennet (D – Colorado)
Joni Ernst (R – Iowa)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D – New York)
Charles Grassley (R – Iowa)
Joe Donnelly (D – Indiana)
John Thune (R – South Dakota)
Heidi Heitkamp (D – North Dakota)
Steve Daines (R – Montana)
Bob Casey Jr. (D – Pennsylvania)
David Perdue (R – Georgia)
Chris Van Hollen (D – Maryland)
Luther Strange (R – Alabama)

Ultimately, we also believe that educating the public is the only way to end puppy mills. While this decision by the USDA is infuriating, we believe that resources like DOG BY DOG can go a long way towards informing the general public of the money behind the mills. Don’t let fear or darkness overwhelm. Be the light. Spread the word.

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