Government shutdown means USDA inspectors of labs aren’t conducting critical oversight

If you think government shutdown is hard on federal workers (which it certainly is), consider how catastrophic it can be for animals trapped in facilities that have fallen out of compliance with Animal Welfare Act (AWA) standards. After all, this is a common enough problem that an entire group of federal employees has this difficult task.

For background, federal law mandates USDA Animal Care inspectors to conduct inspections of all entities licensed and registered under the Animal Welfare Act. This includes all facilities where experimenters use animals in medical experiments. One of the 3 kinds of inspections USDA Animal Care Inspectors are responsible for are “focused inspections based upon public complaints or allegations of unlicensed activities.”

But this isn’t happening - the hotline to report these abuses is no longer being attended.

For background, know that Americans are encouraged by the USDA to notify their Animal Care office if that person observes “individuals or businesses conducting regulated activities without a USDA license or registration, or if you see regulated animals in need of proper care.” In other words, if you see something, tell USDA and they’ll check it out.

So to test this, today (Jan 3rd, 2018) I emailed one of the USDA’s Animal Care offices. The auto-reply, which anyone trying to report abuse would also receive was:

“Thank you for your message.

Our office is closed at this time without access to email, due to the lapse in federal government funding. We will return your message as soon as possible once funding has been restored.

For information about available governement [sic] services, visit USA.gov.”

In other words, USDA’s hotline for suspected welfare violations at facilities is offline. No matter what abuse someone might observe that they want to report, no one in the government is there to answer the call and investigate the allegations of abuse.

This was preventable

To be clear, this didn’t have to happen. While it’s easy to point fingers at elected officials, it’s also true that government agencies know shutdowns may take place, and are told to develop contingency plans in the event they happen. In this case, the failure at APHIS was that these Animal Care inspections weren’t considered essential.

For example, USDA announced that federal workers that inspect slaughterhouses were essential, meaning that slaughterhouses are still being inspected during this shutdown. But when it came to inspectors needed to inspect suspected Animal Welfare Act violations at facilities that conduct experiments that aren’t related to food, those positions were ultimately categorized as non-essential.  

Put another way, this isn’t the only way a government shutdown is terrible for animals suffering in labs. For example, the APHIS website housing disclosure documents isn’t being maintained or updated. And employees travelling to facilities that conduct medical experiments are being called back from any travel (making inspections impossible), as evidenced by the December 2018 internal guidance that USDA is to “Ensure employees in travel status have been directed to return home.” (Source: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Plan for Operations during a Lapse in Appropriations December 2018)

For those of you following our efforts to save kittens from being needlessly killed by USDA, you won't be surprised to hear that another consequence of the shutdown is that our efforts to rescue the kittens and adopt them out are stalled. Please join our email list to stay up to date on the latest news for these kittens and other animals trapped in labs.