Why won't USDA enforce the Animal Welfare Act?

Why won't USDA enforce the Animal Welfare Act?
© Getty Images

At Wilson’s Wild Animal Park, a notorious roadside zoo in Winchester, Va., Himalayan black bears lived huddled together on a concrete floor in a chain-link pen. Tigers were denied the opportunity to run, climb or splash in the water. A single rope separated Indian antelope from visitors. One keeper was responsible for 175 animals.

According to USDA data, the zoo racked up more than 80 animal welfare citations from federal inspectors between 2004 and 2017. Yet, that didn’t stop the USDA from rubber-stamping the facility’s license renewals year after year.

Last month, the 43-year-old zoo abruptly closed after state and local law enforcement officials seized more than 100 animals from the property. On Aug. 29 — after hearing testimony that Wilson’s kept dead lemurs in the same freezer as ice cream, among other atrocities — a district court judge barred the park’s owner from reclaiming the animals, citing cruel treatment and neglect. One unanswered question looms over this exposé of cruelty: Why didn’t the federal government shut down this abysmal establishment?


The USDA’s Animal Care unit regulates more than 10,000 breeders, dealers, zoos, circuses and research laboratories under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The entire AWA enforcement infrastructure — inspections, long-standing policies, fines and public accountability — is in shambles. And gleaning what is happening is no small task given the USDA’s buried data and the anonymity granted to much of the industry.

As the national media has reported in recent weeks, since President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE took office the number of animal welfare citations issued by the USDA has plummeted. These include “critical” or “direct” citations that historically triggered fines or other enforcement actions. Even in the most dire situations, such as at Wilson’s zoo in Virginia, the USDA has stopped initiating seizures to rescue dying animals, leaving it to local law enforcement. By the summer of 2018, the USDA stopped citing Wilson’s altogether.

Nationwide, actual enforcement of a 53-year-old law has been replaced with “courtesy visits,” “teachable moments,” and “incentives." Moreover, the USDA gutted a policy that required licensed operations to comply with American Veterinary Medical Association euthanasia guidelines (which presumably would allow animals to be killed by other means, including blunt force trauma or gunshot), and no longer mandates that veterinary care plans be signed by an actual veterinarian.

According to a recent analysis of federal data by the Animal Welfare Institute, the USDA issued nearly 5,000 citations, based on 8,869 inspections, in 2016. Two years later, the number of citations plunged to fewer than 1,800 from 8,354 inspections. Data available through June suggest the USDA is on track for repeating that performance this year.

The public, meanwhile, is peddled the illusion that the reduction in citations is a result of greater compliance rather than suppressed enforcement.


After scrubbing all animal welfare records from its website two years, the USDA “restored” access with heavy redactions and a crippled, ineffective search engine.

The Animal Welfare Institute analysis found from January 2016 to June 2019, the USDA removed 97 percent of the names and other identifying information of licensed breeders, including puppy mills, from nearly 10,800 inspections. This prevents the public from monitoring problem facilities, where sick puppies spread infectious diseases or potentially dangerous animals pace behind flimsy barriers.

By shielding what the USDA refers to as its “customers” from their legal obligations, the USDA has forced state and federal lawmakers to intervene. Last month, U.S. Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiDemocratic chairman says White House blocked Navarro from testifying Democrats urge CDC to update guidance to encourage colleges, universities go tobacco-free Trump says people 'in the dark shadows' are controlling Biden MORE (D-Ill.), introduced legislation to protect animals from unscrupulous dealers and exhibitors and close existing loopholes in the USDA’s licensing process.

When the AWA is enforced properly, it can prevent immeasurable suffering. In 2016, the USDA settled multiple cases against Santa Cruz Biotechnology — one of the world’s largest research antibody suppliers — resulting in the cancellation of the facility’s research registration, revocation of its dealer license, and payment of a historic $3.5 million fine. Previously, federal inspectors had cited Santa Cruz multiple times for the Dallas company’s mistreatment of goats and rabbits, and the USDA brought its case before an administrative law judge. 

But no more. No more documenting noncompliance in inspection reports, no more solid enforcement (to protect and serve as a deterrent), and no bold actions to rescue animals who are suffering.

USDA inspectors are the first line of defense for animals covered by the modest requirements of the AWA. The agency must restore their authority and resume publishing unredacted records to regain public trust.

Those who flout the law deserve to be held accountable, not coddled. 

Cathy Liss is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.