Monday, February 13, 2017

Did a lawsuit by walking horse competitors lead USDA to move animal-welfare information offline?

Chattanooga Times Free Press
photo by Alyson Wright
Tennessee walking horse activists say a lawsuit filed by show horse competitors who have repeatedly been found in violation of the Horse Protection Act is the reason why the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed animal welfare information from its website, Karin Brulliard reports for The Washington Post.

"Walking horse advocates see the move as a partial victory over what they depict as overreach by a federal agency that is influenced by animal rights groups," Brulliard writes. "While insisting their industry wants to comply with the Horse Protection Act, some argue that a shadow is also cast by public records that name 'violators' who have not had an opportunity to defend themselves."

At the heart of the issue is USDA inspectors giving horse show competitors Lee and Mike McGartland multiple warnings from 2013-16 for soring, the use of chemicals and physical abuse to induce high steps in show horses, Brulliard writes. "The McGartlands sued, arguing that the enforcement program denies due process to those accused of violations and breaks privacy laws by publishing personal information."

"The McGartlands’ lawsuit, now in mediation, contends that public disclosure of their warnings 'indict them by innuendo and are individualized and accusatory,'" Brulliard writes. Jeffrey Howard, the publisher of the Shelbyville, Tenn.-based Walking Horse Report, told the Shelbyville Times-Gazette: "The USDA has been unfairly punishing people by listing them as violators of the HPA while never allowing those parties an opportunity for notice and a hearing. The violations statistics that the animal rights movement and (the Humane Society) have used to further their cause have been false and misleading statistics and are not violations.”

While some call the removal of information an "assault on transparency" by the Trump administration, USDA was limiting information before he took office, Brulliard writes. Records had been available for seven years, but had not been posted since August, said Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute. He said other records were retroactively redacted.

USDA "has offered little explanation for its action, saying in statements that it is the result of a review, guided by court opinions, privacy laws and current litigation, that began last year," Brulliard writes. Former Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said he received recommendations to pull the records from the website and instead make them available via Freedom of Information Act requests, but he didn't have enough time to consider the suggestion fully.

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