On Monday, a group of animal rights organizations filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) over the removal of thousands of animal welfare documents that were previously available online.
The suit—filed by PETA, Born Free USA, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups—accuses the government agencies of violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by taking down a database of records that was regularly relied upon by animal rights groups and law enforcement.
The action from the groups comes after the USDA removed animal investigation reports and annual reviews filed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA) from the APHIS website earlier this month.
According to the USDA, the decision to remove the files was made in response to pending litigation and potential privacy issues. The agency said the information was still available—albeit in a redacted form—by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Those requests can take months or years to be fulfilled. In the lawsuit, it is noted that PETA recently received response to a FOIA request that was filed over four-and-a-half years ago. The response from the agency stated there were no records responsive to PETA’s request.
The records, and immediate access to them as was previously possible via the APHIS website, are an invaluable resource to animal welfare groups, especially for tracking the activity of puppy mills—facilities that breed dogs for the express purpose of selling them and provide inhumane living conditions.
According to a statement from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), “without the availability of public inspection records, The HSUS would have had great difficulty obtaining the information we needed to press the agency on these cases.” The HSUS previously sued the USDA in 2005 to first make animal investigation reports public.
Lyndsay Cole, the assistant director of public affairs for the APHIS, told International Business Times, “We are unable to comment on pending litigation.”
She noted, “APHIS continues to work to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. These decisions regarding posting of materials on the APHIS website are not final, and adjustments made be made regarding the information that is appropriate for release or posting.”