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WAWDT: USDA, animal welfare, and responses

On February 3, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) abruptly removed from its website access to inspection reports and other information on animal welfare, citing a review process. This is the kind of action about which I’m asking “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT).

SDG logoAt issue, according to Science, are “tens of thousands of reports that document the numbers of animals kept by research labs, companies, zoos, circuses, and animal transporters—and whether those animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act“,” as well as “inspection reports under the Horse Protection Act.” National Geographic has more on why these reports are important. This information had been accessible on the website maintained by the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The USDA’s action elicited a “swift” backlash, and restoration of a small number of the documents two weeks later. There is also a private effort to collect and publish all the removed information.

Although USDA says the review process leading to removal of the information was started last year, and there is speculation that a lawsuit by some horse trainers catalyzed the move, this action does seem to confirm fears about such removal of access to data and information long made available to the public by the Federal government.

Personally, when I heard this story it was hard to see an angle from which one could give USDA the benefit of the doubt. Such a vast amount of documents (from almost 8000 facilities) simply removed from view, when there may have been issues of legal or other concern relating to only a handful. From the descriptions, it seems the information was (is) a very important part of assuring humane treatment of animals in diverse contexts where they are used commercially or for research.

Data copying efforts

The abovementioned effort to copy (and at this point retrieve) and publish (on the MemoryHole site) the information deleted by APHIS is part of a larger semi-organized movement begun before the new US administration took office last month to copy data and other information from government websites. A major concern has been climate data, with DataRefuge site evidently playing a coordinating role (see also the presentation on PPEH Lab‘s site).

Other concerns regarding data

In addition to loss of access to data, there is a longer term concern, per FiveThirtyEight, that “the the integrity of U.S. government data could be compromised more subtly and more systematically over the next four years.”

 

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