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A Tennessee Walking Horse

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USDA scrubbing of animal records may have been sparked by horse lawsuit

A lawsuit over alleged cruelty to a special breed of horse appears to have prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) move last week to remove thousands of reports and documents relating to animal welfare from its website. The scrubbing has outraged animal welfare advocates—and made strange bedfellows of groups that oppose and support scientific research involving animals, with both sides condemning USDA’s actions. It appears, however, that the agency’s decision had little—if anything—to do with animal research.

The lawsuit, filed in February 2016, was brought in part by Lee and Mike McGartland, Texas attorneys who enter Tennessee Walking Horses in various competitions. The breed is famous for its high-stepping gait, which some animal welfare advocates have charged comes from injuring the animals, typically by adding caustic chemicals to their legs and feet—a process known as soring. The Horse Protection Act of 1970 outlawed the practice, and the law is enforced by inspectors employed by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

A negative APHIS inspection can disqualify a horse from competition, even before the owners or trainers can contest the findings in court. As a result, the McGartlands, who have had several horses disqualified from competition because of allegations of soring, charged APHIS with violating their due process rights. In particular, because the inspection reports are posted online and contain the names of the alleged violators, the McGartlands say that USDA has violated the federal Privacy Act, which regulates the dissemination of personal information by federal agencies. The lawsuit, filed in a federal district court in Fort Worth, Texas, asks the agency to remove any such documents from its website.

It’s unclear how USDA responded to the lawsuit, but reporting by ScienceInsider suggests that the agency conducted an internal review of whether it should continue posting violations related to the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act (which regulates the treatment of laboratory animals). Ultimately, the agency decided to keep the records up—a decision confirmed by The Washington Post, which broke the story earlier today.

According to the Post, former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said his staff had recommended pulling the records because of fears of litigation, but he did not approve the action because he didn’t have enough time to evaluate the consequences, and because of concerns about transparency. USDA itself vaguely alluded to these actions and the lawsuit in a statement it put out on Tuesday. It reads in part:

“The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. In 2016, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website.”

So why did USDA change its mind? Marty Irby, the Senior Director of Rural Outreach and Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., and the former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, says the Walking Horse community has long been putting tremendous pressure on the agency to ease its enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, and to remove violations of the act from its website. “They can’t win in the court of public opinion, so they have tried to influence legislators instead.” 

During the past eight years, USDA has been infiltrated by animal rights extremists 

Mindy Patterson, The Calvary Group

The turning point, Irby believes, came when the Trump administration hired Brian Klippenstein to lead the USDA transition team. Klippenstein is the executive director of Protect the Harvest, a Columbia, Missouri–based pro-agriculture group that has supported Right to Farm bills, which protect the agriculture industry from certain lawsuits and regulations, including those involving animal welfare. The group has also opposed restrictions on large-scale dog breeding operations—sometimes referred to as “puppy mills”-- which are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. USDA’s decision to remove documents relating to violations of both the Horse Protection Act and Animal Welfare Act would be consistent with Protect the Harvest’s policy goals, Irby notes. (Multiple calls and emails to Walking Horse organizations and Protect the Harvest were not returned.)

USDA’s move appears to have cheered groups that represent horse owners. “For the last eight years, USDA has been releasing confidential and un-adjudicated information to animal rights extremists and activist organizations,” Mindy Patterson, president of The Calvary Group, a Grover, Missouri–based company that lobbies against legislation it believes targets horse and dog owners, and farmers, writes in an email to ScienceInsider. “During the past eight years, USDA has been infiltrated by animal rights extremists who, with some success, attempted to change the culture within USDA-APHIS from one that is supportive of animal enterprise to one that aggressively bullies and harasses law abiding animal businesses with the ultimate goal of running them out of business.”

Strange bedfellows

Meanwhile, USDA’s action has had one surprising ripple effect: Groups that support the use of animals in biomedical research have become unlikely allies of their longtime adversaries in the animal rights and welfare community. When organizations including HSUS, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Animal Welfare Institute condemned the USDA scrubbing, they were joined by Speaking of Research, which defends the use of animals in scientific labs and worries that USDA’s lack of transparency could make the public think that biomedical researchers who work on animals have something to hide. Removing the records from the internet also makes it hard to keep tabs on trends in animal research, according to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, which also supports the use of laboratory animals.

To combat that problem, Speaking of Research has begun uploading annual USDA reports to its website, and a website called The Memory Hole 2 says it will republish as many of the missing reports as it can, according to an article in Motherboard.

“It is not enough for the scientific community to tell the public that animal research is essential; they must also provide the public with the information showing how and why animals are necessary for medical and veterinary advances,” says Tom Holder, director of Speaking of Research in London, which has staff in the United States and the United Kingdom. “Speaking of Research believes in an informed public who have as much access to the information they need to make up their mind.”

*Update, 9 February, 11:21 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that the Foundation for Biomedical Research did not condemn USDA's actions.