On August 26, 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent an "official warning" to Contender Farms of Fort Worth, Texas. It informed the owners that She's a Shady Sister, a show horse that participated in the 76th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, "was found sore and in violation of the scar rule during a post-show inspection." The document was posted on the USDA website, per what was then the longstanding practice of making this and other inspection-related documents available to the public.

"Sore" refers to soring, a practice that inflicts pain on the limbs of a horse for the purpose of accentuating its gait. Chemicals are often used, or weights are placed under the horse's front hooves. These and other soring methods can cause lesions, inflammation, loss of hair and other visible signs described in the Horse Protection Act's Scar Rule.

Attorneys Lee and Mike McGartland, the owners of She's a Shady Sister, have had several of their horses disqualified from competition due to allegations of soring. The McGartlands sued the USDA, however, in part because they argued that the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which posted the inspection report and related information online, had violated the federal Privacy Act that governs the dissemination of information about individuals by federal agencies.

APHIS then conducted an internal review of its policies concerning posting violations tied to the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport and by dealers.

Photo: Hooves of a Tennessee walking horse that are bound to weights. Credit: USDA-APHIS veterinarian Todd Behre, Wikimedia Commons

As a result of the review, the USDA-APHIS earlier this month abruptly removed animal welfare inspection reports from its website. In a flash, the inspection report for She's a Shady Sister and other documents that animal rights organizations rely on to monitor violations were gone. (Some documents, including ones linked to from this article, have been preserved through an organization called The Memory Hole, which has started posting deleted animal welfare documents from USDA-APHIS online.)

Tanya Espinosa, a legislative and public affairs specialist at USDA-APHIS, told Seeker, "Based on our commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders' informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals, APHIS is implementing actions to remove documents it posts on APHIS' website involving the HPA and the AWA that contain personal information covered by the Privacy and Freedom of Information Acts or guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding them."

She continued, "These documents include inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication."

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In addition, Espinosa said that APHIS is reviewing and redacting their lists of licensees and registrants under the AWA, as well as similar lists for USDA-certified horse industry organizations.

Animal Rights Groups File Lawsuits
In response, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has taken two legal actions against USDA-APHIS so far. The first alleges that USDA-APHIS, in removing the materials from its website, violated a 2009 "agreement to post certain data on its website concerning research on animals." The second alleges intervention in the legal case concerning horse soring.

On February 13, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Physicals Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others filed a complaint against USDA-APHIS, with the goal "to compel the USDA to publicly disclose thousands of records that the agency for years posted on the website of its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service."

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which represents 232 accredited zoos and aquariums worldwide, is not currently involved in any litigation against USDA-APHIS concerning the website scrubbing. But Dan Ashe, president and CEO of AZA, strongly disapproves of the decision to remove online access to USDA inspection reports.

"Public disclosure of relevant animal care and welfare information represents our license to operate and is essential for ensuring the public's trust and confidence in our profession, enabling the public to distinguish the best animal care facilities from poorly run breeding farms and roadside zoos and menageries," Ashe said. "AZA urges USDA to reconsider this decision, and believes all legitimate accrediting organizations should join us in this request."

Not everyone is unhappy with the USDA-APHIS decision to wipe its website clean of certain animal welfare data. The Cavalry Group, whose stated mission is "protecting and defending animal enterprise," applauds the change in USDA policy.

"For the last eight years, USDA has been releasing confidential and un-adjudicated information to animal rights extremists and activist organizations, such as the HSUS and PETA, knowing that the information would be used wrongfully against USDA licensees with the intent to run them out of business," said Cavalry Group President Mindy Patterson. "Empirical data exists evidencing that animal rights groups have used licensees' information to make fraudulent claims and anonymous tips to authorities, and terrorize law abiding American families whose livelihood happens to involve exhibiting, breeding, transporting, or selling animals."

Loss for the Public
The HSUS argues that the information scrubbed from the USDA-APHIS site provided guidance to consumers about dog breeders they may purchase from, zoos they may visit and horse trainers they may associate with. The research facility annual reports alone revealed trends in animal care and highlighted practices like soring that can cause pain and distress to animals.

Photo: Miniature breed dogs in a puppy mill. Credit: PETA

The HSUS further says that the erased information informed what research areas should be a funding priority in order to remove abused animals from certain facilities or to at least improve their care.

Public safety could be at stake too. For example, one of the scrubbed inspection reports essentially mentioned that a feed-the-lions attraction in Nevada put visitors at risk of having a finger bit off by one of the big cats. That operation is still in business, so the problem must have been resolved. Nevertheless, compliance can take time, and having accessible inspection report information may help to educate consumers.

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Many animal rights group members are blaming the Trump administration for the USDA-APHIS website data scrub. Espinosa denied that the Trump team is behind the removals, saying, "In 2016, well before the change of administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records." It is true that the horse soring litigation was well underway before Trump took office.

The HSUS, however, told Seeker that the Obama administration chose not to delete the animal inspection information, and that the Trump administration's transition team leader at the USDA, Brian Klippenstein, has been fighting HSUS for years. Klippenstein is the director of Protect the Harvest, an organization whose stated mission is "to protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat and own pets." According to HSUS, Protect the Harvest has defended puppy mills, roadside zoos, individuals accused of horse soring and others.

It remains to be seen how the legal actions taken by the HSUS, PETA and others will play out. Espinosa did say that the decisions of her agency "are not final."

"Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting," she added.

Currently, those seeking information about the reports can submit Freedom of Information Act requests, which may or may not be approved. If they are approved, the process can take weeks.

In the meantime, PETA has been linking to the deleted animal welfare documents from USDA-APHIS posted by the Memory Hole. The selection currently only represents a fraction of the former documents, but the goal is to repost them all.

Top Photo: The horse "Walk Time Charlie" at the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, Aug 2012. Credit: Randall R. Saxton, Flickr