With approximately 23 million American households acquiring a pet since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s no doubt that the bonds between people and their pets strengthened over the past year. But not all animals were so fortunate — the COVID-19 pandemic revealed unacceptable shortcomings in our animal protection laws, which increased the suffering of animals in underregulated settings like factory farms and puppy mills.
Factory Farm Cruelty
The pandemic pulled back the curtain on the inherent cruelty and fragility of our factory farming system. Conditions worsened as viral outbreaks among slaughterhouse employees and inspectors resulted in shutdowns and the mass killing of millions of farm animals simply because they had no place to go. Many of these animals were killed through inhumane “depopulation” methods like ventilation shutdown and suffocation using water-based foam.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exacerbated these poor conditions during the pandemic by allowing a record number of plants to slaughter animals at extreme speeds, jeopardizing the welfare of both farm animals and workers. To lessen this suffering and injury in the future, Congress must pass the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act and demand slower, safer slaughter through the 2022 Agriculture Appropriations bill.
Increased Risk to Commercially Bred Puppies
For years, the USDA has failed to enforce the Animal Welfare Act — the leading federal law protecting animals in commercial settings. Earlier this month, we sued the agency for allowing cruel puppy mills to violate the law without any consequences.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, things got even worse for animals in these facilities. Inspections were suspended entirely for months and the USDA later relied on “virtual inspections” without explaining how announced virtual inspections could adequately replace unannounced in-person evaluations of facility conditions and animal welfare processes. The lack of in-person, hands-on inspections didn’t stop the agency from licensing new facilities, which could be approved to operate after a simple video call.
Congress must demand an investigation into the USDA’s mismanagement of this program during COVID-19. Lawmakers should also use the 2022 Agriculture Appropriations bill to address longstanding problems with the agency’s inspection and enforcement program.
Vulnerability to Disasters
Disaster preparation is another area where weak policies have had life-threatening consequences during a crisis. Facilities with Animal Welfare Act licenses — including commercial dog breeding facilities, zoos, and animal laboratories — bear a special responsibility to prepare for severe weather, fires, floods, and other emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. But these federally regulated facilities are not required to have contingency plans in place to care for animals in case of an emergency. As a result, we’ve seen such animals abandoned during Hurricane Katrina and Tropical Storm Allison, succumbing to hypothermia during power outages, and perishing in fires.
Thanks to the FY2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, the USDA recently released a proposed rule to lift the stay on a requirement for these facilities to develop contingency plans and to protect animals in jeopardy during a disaster. Now we need Congress to pass the PREPARED Act — reintroduced earlier this year — to permanently codify essential protections to ensure animals are cared for in emergencies.
The pandemic has also put a new tragic face on a truth that we’ve known for some time: what happens to people affects pets, and what happens to pets affects people. The devastating economic hardships of poverty and the COVID-19 crisis — including impending evictions—could create severe challenges for millions of pets in addition to people.
Based on estimates we released last December, approximately 19.2 million dogs and cats live in households not presently current with their rent or mortgage payments. This includes over 9.8 million dogs and cats living in rental homes and 9.4 million dogs and cats living in owned homes.
At the same time, pet restrictions in housing remain an enormous and consequential hurdle for renters, homeowners, and people experiencing homelessness. While some animal shelters and welfare organizations assist communities by offering accessible veterinary care and other services that enable pet owners to keep and care for their animals, housing insecurity continues to put animals and their families at risk of being separated.
Even with the recent 30-day extension of the federal eviction moratorium, expanding pet-inclusive housing programs is still crucial to help struggling pet owners cope with financial and resource difficulties. During these challenging times, it’s imperative to keep families — including both people and their animals — together.
We recognize that Congress and the Biden administration have a lot on their plates, but animal safety cannot fall through the cracks — even during a crisis. Public opinion is very clear on this issue: cruelty to animals is unacceptable. We urge the federal government to implement meaningful recommendations that protect and sustain animals and people, as well as reinforce systems responsible for ensuring those protections will endure, not diminish, in the face of future emergencies.
Matt Bershadker is president and CEO of ASPCA.