At 1 p.m. today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture posted this notice on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) section of its website. The notice explains that from now on, it will be much harder for consumers and others to review government inspection reports about dog breeders that previously had been available online in a simple search.
Until today, documents including inspection reports of commercial-scale dog breeding kennels have been uploaded into a searchable database that anyone could access at any time through a link on the APHIS landing page. Several years’ worth of these inspection reports, which are generated by the taxpayer-funded agency, have been available for a free, easy search. That search function is now gone, replaced by today’s announcement on a static web page.
The inspection reports that used to be searchable have long been used for many purposes. For instance, they allowed consumers to check whether a commercial-scale dog breeder was complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act before purchasing a puppy from that breeder; they allowed pet-store owners to do the same (in some states, pet stores are required by law to check the reports of any commercial-scale breeders who sell them puppies); and they were used by welfare advocates and activists to produce pamphlets such as the Humane Society of the United States “Horrible Hundred Puppy Mills” list each year.
Commercial-scale dog breeders have long argued that, because their kennels are typically located on the same property as their private homes, the inspection reports contain personal information that is being unfairly revealed to the general public, including to some activists who trespass onto their property to take photographs, harass them and bother their dogs. The breeders have said that having their names, addresses, contact details and other information placed online or made available to the public is a violation of their personal privacy.
Today, the federal government appears to have sided with those breeders.
From now on, according to today’s notice, the inspection reports will be removed from the searchable database. The move comes, according to the agency, following a yearlong review that included ensuring compliance with the Privacy Act.
“Going forward, APHIS will remove from its website inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication,” the notice states.
The notice adds that anyone seeking access to such information in the future, instead of being able to simply look it up online, must now submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the federal government.
In those cases, the notice states, “Records will be released when authorized and in a manner consistent with the FOIA and Privacy Act. If the same records are frequently requested via the FOIA process, in most instances APHIS may post the appropriately redacted versions to its website.”
The FOIA process can be a long one, sometimes taking months to yield a response. This delay may now make it impossible for consumers, pet-store owners and others to assess a dog breeder’s record in real time, when the purchase of a puppy is pending—unless the breeder himself chooses to share his own government-issued inspection report, especially when it contains citations for violating the Animal Welfare Act.