PETA sues feds over animal welfare records

PETA sues feds over animal welfare records
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Animal rights groups are suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its decision to remove thousands of animal welfare records from its website earlier this month.

In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, PETA and five other animal rights advocates and advocacy groups asked the court to force the agency to repost the records it removed. Those documents include records of animal welfare violations at zoos, commercial breeders and research labs.

The groups claim the records are needed to keep the public informed about the agency’s implementation and enforcement — or lack thereof — for the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA).  

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“Congress enacted the AWA decades ago 'to insure that animals intended for use in research facilities or for exhibition purposes or for use as pets are provided humane care and treatment,'" the groups said in their complaint.

“Plaintiffs and others have also relied on such records to advocate for protection of animals used in research, exhibition, and the pet trade, and to petition the USDA to more diligently enforce the AWA, to promulgate standards for animal protection, and to formulate and institute policies and practices that will advance the protection of animals."

In removing the records, the groups claim USDA violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires federal agencies to provide certain records to the public as a whole and disclose any other records to individuals in response to FOIA requests.

In a statement, USDA Spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency is trying to balance the need for transparency with rules that protect individual privacy.

“These decisions are not final,” she said. “Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”

Espinosa said she could not comment on the lawsuit filed Monday, but added that the agency is currently involved in separate litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website.

“While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy,” she said, adding that groups could submit FOIA requests for the missing records.

Animal rights advocates, however, claim the agency is trying to protect animal abusers.

"Our lawsuit seeks to compel the USDA to reinstate the records, which it had no right to remove from its website in the first place," Harvard Animal Law & Policy Fellow Delcianna Winders, one of the plaintiff’s in the case, said in a statement.

"The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny."