Animal-Welfare Records Loss Triggers Suit

WASHINGTON (CN) — Animal-welfare activists slapped the government with a federal complaint Monday for clawing back thousands of public records that it had made available to the public for years on the internet.

Led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activists say the records in question include inspection reports, enforcement records and other documents maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA has made such records available for years on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s website, but it triggered PETA’s lawsuit in announcing a policy shift on Feb. 3.

“Despite the fact that the agency already redacted personal information from the records before posting them,” PETA says in a Feb. 13 complaint, “it asserted that the reason for its decision was its desire to ‘remove certain personal information from documents it posts on APHIS’ website.”

PETA brought its complaint in Washington with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Born Free USA, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Beagle Freedom Project, and Delcianna Winders, an animal-law expert at Harvard University.

“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,” Winders said in a statement on PETA’s website. “The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny.”

PETA notes that the agency records help it stay abreast of implementation and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. The law covers animals in more than 7,800 facilities, including zoos, roadside circuses, and research laboratories at government agencies and academic medical centers.

In addition to harming activists, according to the complaint, shrouding such records also interferes with the work of researchers, journalists, and state and local governments.

If these groups are unable to access the records online, they will have to file individual requests for the records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Meanwhile, the agency’s most recent FOIA report from 2010 states that it takes an average of 124 days for the agency to respond to simple FOIA requests. More complicated requests take an average of 368 days for the USDA to fulfill.

Both the USDA and the Department of Justice, which represents government agencies in litigation, declined to comment on pending litigation.

PETA and its co-plaintiffs are represented by Katherine Meyer of Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks.

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