Lack of Transparency After USDA Animal Abuse Records Went Offline
Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These include the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the U.S.—including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.
They also reveal many cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, documenting violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Incidents if the reports had not been publicly posted, would most likely to have remained hidden. This recent federal action plunges journalists, animal welfare organizations, and the public at large into the dark about animal welfare at facilities across the country.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which has maintained the online database, cites privacy concerns as justification for the removal.
However, critics question that reasoning.
“The citizens of the United States deserve to see that information,” says Dan Ashe, head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the USDA’s removal of records is “not in the interest of credible, legitimate animal care facilities. What [the action] does is it erodes public confidence, because when people see something like that, they’re inclined, rightfully, to think that the government is trying to shield something from their view.”
Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, an animal advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is “shocked” by the purge. He says the documents shed light on cruelty in “substandard roadside zoos, shameful animal circuses, puppy breeding factories and more.” Often, the animals in these facilities may have visible wounds or cramped conditions or no access to water, according to Roberts. He says “the government’s decision to make it harder to access this information further protects animal exploiters in the shroud of secrecy on which their nefarious activities thrive.”
Spokesperson Tanya Espinosa came out in a statement that this decision will not affect enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act: “We will continue to enforce the regulations and standards as they are written.” Furthermore, the documents will only be accessible only via official requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, which could take months to process.
That’s far too long, Roberts says. When Born Free receives welfare complaints from concerned citizens, he says the organization has always checked USDA records to see if any complaints had already been made involving the facility or animal in question. Waiting months for a FOIA report for information that previously could be obtained with the click of a button “may mean prolonged suffering for an animal in need,” Roberts argues.
This decision will also significantly impact the public’s awareness of animal suffering, says Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. “Long delays in processing federal FOIA requests already hinder the public and journalists in obtaining information that’s essential to ensuring that government is truly working for the people. Access to public data and documents should not be a partisan political issue. Anyone concerned about responsible and transparent government should be alarmed by the USDA’s actions.”
Ashe and others are urging the USDA to reconsider. In the past, access to the public records have allowed for reporting animal welfare violations, playing a significant role in ending numerous incidents of animal suffering.
In March 2016, Mother Jones published “Welcome to the Jungle,” a story exposing 20 years of abuse of animals at DEW Haven, a family-run, roadside zoo outside Mount Haven, Maine. At the time, the zoo was already in the national spotlight as the setting for a popular Animal Planet reality show, Yankee Jungle.
The article exposed illegal importation of animals, poor sanitation, inadequate shelter, feces-ridden food, pens too small for movement, and premature death, as revealed in dozens of now offline USDA citations issued between 2004 and 2015. After the article was published, Animal Planet canceled the show.
“The USDA documents provided such a strong spine of documentary evidence right out of the gate,” says James West, who wrote the story. He explains that it would have been “near impossible to report” without access to these records. “These were completely rich, primary source evidence documents, full of information, which then led me to other leads. There’s names of people in here, there’s types of animals.”
Without them, he says, the public misses the facts, and people may not realize that “it’s very hard to get information from state and local enforcement agencies. The USDA [reports] are one of the only ways that journalists can have an immediate insight into people who may be running afoul of federal animal welfare law.”
In January 2015, New York Times investigated the suffering of farm animals at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a USDA facility that ran experiments designed to make livestock meatier and more fertile. In short, the story detailed numerous problematic practices, details that journalist Michael Moss found on USDA APHIS welfare records. Using dozens of case files, Moss revealed how the USDA has cracked down on third parties engaging in milder practices than it was performing in its own lab.
His work prompted the USDA to shut down all new experimental projects at the facility pending improvements to its welfare standards. The agency also highlighted a gaping loophole in the Animal Welfare Act: It exempts farm animals used in research experiments. Several lawmakers introduced a bill to extend protections to farm animals and to appoint an animal welfare ombudsman to oversee the welfare of animals at all USDA-run facilities.
Reports and investigations on APHIS citations have also included on accusations against the research lab at August University with multiple violations for their treatment of primates and dogs and SNBL USA, a pharmaceutical research facility for the death of 38 primates due to dehydration, botched surgeries, and drug-overload.
APHIS documents also served as crucial primary evidence in a yearlong Mother Jones investigation of Ringling Bros. Circus’ allegedly horrific treatment of elephants. The 2011 investigation was one of the first to shed light, showing that elephants were kept for years in cramped living conditions and were whipped and chained by their handlers. The story prompted a public outcry and petitions calling for the elephants’ removal from the circus. Ringling declared in 2016 that it would stop using touring elephants. But then, in January 2017, it announced that after 146 years, the circus would to be shut down permanently.
Writer Deborah Nelson, also an associate professor of investigative journalism at the University of Maryland, says she used the online records to track pending and new inspections and complaints as she researched the story. “They allowed me to keep running watch on how animals were being treated and how the government was carrying out its mandate to protect them,” she says.
Nelson also relied on a FOIA lawsuit welfare groups had filed against the USDA to force release of public records on the elephants. “FOIA request is no substitute for direct public access,” Nelson says. “The FOIA process builds in delays and can be used to prevent release of information absent appeals and costly litigation.”
The burden of making public a trove of information on animal welfare—how animals are suffering nationwide, who the perpetrators are, and where there may be holes in current legislation—now largely falls to third parties. Mother Jones’s West, whose story about the roadside zoo relied heavily on the USDA APHIS database, points out how cumbersome a task this will be for nonprofit watchdog organizations: “They’re cash-strapped and overworked, and it shouldn’t be their responsibility to be the reservoir of public information. It’s the government’s role.”
AZA’s Dan Ashe sees the USDA’s actions as a blow to accountability. If these records aren’t made readily available, “you can only really reach one conclusion, and that is that the public’s ability to hold these institutions accountable will be diminished.”
Born Free’s Roberts agrees.
“Transparency is vital to democracy, and the USDA should reverse course and reopen access to information online,” he says. “I assume they will—unless they have something to hide.”
Size Matters for Marine Protected Areas To Bring Back Coral Reefs
In a study that may sound a new alarm for endangered corals, researchers have found that small community-based marine protected areas may be especially vulnerable to attack by crown-of-thorns sea stars (Acanthaster species) that can devastate coral reefs within weeks.
“The marine protected areas that are enforced in the Fiji Islands are having a remarkable effect,” said Mark Hay, Regents Professor and Harry and Linda Teasley Chair in the School of Biological Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The corals and fishes are recovering. But once these marine protected areas are successful, they attract the sea stars which can make the small marine protected areas victims of their own success.”
This newly published study conflicts with earlier studies that showed diminished sea star threats in large-scale marine protected areas.
“Successful small marine protected areas are like oases in the desert that may attract the sea stars, which can move tens of meters per day from degraded areas into the more pristine areas,” said Cody Clements, a Georgia Tech graduate student who conducted the research. “One of the potential benefits of marine protected areas was supposed to be protection against these outbreaks, but that didn’t seem to be the case in the areas we studied.”
In Fiji Islands and other areas of the tropical Pacific, many villages established marine protected areas where fishing is banned. Protecting the fish helps control seaweeds that harm the coral, a foundation species whose presence helps ensure a healthy ecosystem. This effect can snowball, contributing the repopulation of nearby areas. Furthermore, the return of the reefs can provide economic benefits through tourism and spillover of fish to the areas where harvest is allowed.
To determine the extent of the problem and learn if the sea stars indeed preferred marine protected areas, Clements studied reefs within and immediately surrounding three marine protected areas on the Coral Coast of the Fiji Islands. First, he conducted a survey to determine population densities of the predators on both protected reefs and fished reefs outside their borders. He found that many of the protected areas had up to 3.4 times as many of the pests as the fished areas, with densities high enough to be considered Acanthaster seastar outbreaks.
Next, he tagged 40 sea stars and caged 20 on the eastern and 20 on the western borders of each protected area for two days before releasing them. Clements tracked each sea star, recording whether they had entered the protected or fished areas, and how far they moved into each. Nearly three-quarters of the sea stars entered the marine protected areas rather than the fished areas.
“There seems to be something that is attracting them to the protected areas,” said Clements. “They are picking up on something, but we don’t necessarily know what it is.” This particular research did not examine chemical cues that may be attracting the sea stars, though other studies have suggested the scent of corals being consumed may draw the crown-of-thorns.
Though the small size of the Fijian protected areas — averaging less than a square kilometer — may be a negative for protecting against the sea stars, they could be a positive in efforts to control the pest. Teams of local residents could capture the predators in periodic harvests to keep populations at lower densities, Hay said.
The sea stars are a natural part of the tropical Pacific environment, and outbreaks have been known for years. But there is concern that the densities of the pests and number of outbreaks have been increasing at a time when the coral reefs are more vulnerable.
“Reefs are facing many novel stressors today,” said Clements. “They might have been able to tolerate crown-of-thorns attacks in the past that are too much for them now. There are multiple threats facing coral reef ecosystems, and this doesn’t help.”
Coral conservation efforts can require a decade to show results, and Hay hopes the latest threat will not discourage designation of marine protected areas.
“Our findings do not negate the value of the protected areas, but raise an issue of concern to the people who manage them,” he said. “This looks like a threat that could be accelerating, and we wanted to raise the awareness.”
Should We Be Saving Parasites?
There’s a plethora of wildlife charity campaigns advocating for popular species like snow leopards, wolves, and primates. On the other hand, parasites are seen as harmful, itchy, nasty, creepy crawlies. Our minds turn to the itchy image of head lice or the stomach-churning intestinal worm, all the diseases they can cause. But, these strange and beautiful creatures have many uses and should be saved.
Until very recently, the skies of North America played host to one of the largest birds on earth: the Californian condor. And if the last remaining 27 individuals of the species were captured for captive breeding efforts at the San Diego Zoo in 1987, the condor may very well be extinct.
But, nestled amongst their feathers were another species on the brink of extinction: the Californian condor louse. Within weeks of entering San Diego Zoo, the louse went extinct. When an animal is taken into captivity to prevent its extinction zookeepers are quick to treat each individual with antiparasitic drugs. The condor louse became a victim of this all too common practice.
Organizations like IUCN and WWF are strong advocates for the survival of our planet’s species. But, they hardly focus on invertebrates, let alone parasites. The public is enraptured with big enigma animals like tigers and rhinoceros but care little for the more humble species: the plants, insects and parasites. And as such, these organizations and campaigns neglect the little guys.
Parasites are one of the most species-rich groups on Earth. Generally, it is further categorized as arthropods such as lice, fleas, and tick; helminths such as tapeworms, roundworms, and flatworms; and protozoa such as giardia. Parasites have been recorded from almost all animal species and most have been been studied in detail. They are diverse, strange and quite extraordinary and many are in need of conservation efforts owing to the fact that their main hosts are also often threatened with extinction, a status known as co-endangered.
An obvious argument for the conservation of any species is intrinsic value. This is the idea that a species should be allowed to exist for its own sake. Proponents of this view feel that a species should not have to benefit humanity in some to warrant its conservation or survival. While this argument is commonly made for much-loved icons of conservation like pandas and polar bears, it can equally be applied to parasites. However, most people argue against it saying that parasites provide no benefit, therefore no incentive for protection and preservation.
Perhaps a more practical reason to conserve parasites is their utility as conservation monitoring tools. As the number of individuals in the population of an endangered animal decline, it becomes much more difficult for researchers to track and monitor the species so they turn to parasites. In the past, researchers have used leeches to locate populations of rare mammals by looking at the DNA in the blood the leeches have ingested. Through this, researchers can identify the DNA signature of rare species which the leeches can locate but which the researchers cannot.
Parasites have also been used to track inbreeding and the loss of genetic diversity in their hosts’ populations. Populations of intestinal worms live within the guts of populations of larger animals such as tigers. If the tiger population declines and inbreeding increases, so too will inbreeding increase in their parasitic worms. Therefore, instead of having to track all the tigers in a population and take their DNA, researchers can compare the genetic variation by collecting tiger poo, extracting DNA from the worms within and using levels of inbreeding the worm population as a proxy for the tiger population.
For the longest time, it has been the prevailing idea that parasites cause serious damage to their hosts, which to an extent is true. However, scientific findings are beginning to challenge this long-held dogma with more and more evidence that parasites may be crucial to our health and the health of wildlife than we previously recognized. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that we need to encounter infectious organisms like intestinal worms in our younger years for our immune systems to learn the correct way of fighting infection so that it doesn’t overreact, as occurs in the case of allergy or autoimmune diseases. Although at first sight it may seem like a juxtaposition, the health benefits of parasites may be a great reason to warrant their conservation.
Ecological services are the roles certain species play within the ecosystem that allows it to function normally. It should be no surprise that parasites play a large role in ecosystems and that their loss could have catastrophic consequences and even lead to a tropic cascade where by an ecosystem collapses due to the loss of important species. There is evidence to suggest that parasites play a crucial role in controlling the distribution and population size of their hosts and in doing so prevent overgrazing by herbivores and overhunting by carnivores. If we are to maintain our fragile ecosystems we will need to consider the role parasites play in them and what may occur if we lose them from systems through extinction.
Perhaps the most attractive reason to protect and conserve parasites is their utility as reservoirs of new medicines. Bioprospecting is the increasingly popular practice of searching for new drugs and commercially valuable substances within the living world and parasites are ideal for research because they have honed their ability to modulate their hosts over evolutionary time. For example, many intestinal worms can produce compounds which down-regulate parts of our immune system: essentially turning them down a bit. These compounds could be crucial for people suffering autoimmune diseases where the immune system is up-regulated and gets so “trigger happy” it attacks the body. Some parasites such as botflies produce painkillers so that their hosts do not notice them as they burrow beneath the skin. Those compounds could be used as local anaesthetics during surgery or other medical procedures.
Perhaps it’s time for us to look beyond the fierce and fluffy conservation icons we cherish and instead embrace the creepy, strange and beautiful parasites that call our wild places home and so desperately need some public love because it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need them a lot more than we realized.