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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

New USDA animal care fact sheets focus more on gloss than truly improving animal care

The Animal Welfare Act is supposed to ensure the humane treatment of animals—from dogs to elephants—at zoos, commercial breeders, research labs, and other regulated facilities. For years, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Humane Society of the United States have pressed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve its enforcement of this critical law by updating its regulations to account for scientific developments, explicitly prohibiting certain practices known to cause animal suffering, and providing appropriate guidance to its inspectors, as well as by working with Congress to significantly boost the agency’s enforcement budget.

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Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS

Over the last few years, however, the USDA’s enforcement of the AWA has moved almost entirely in the wrong direction. That’s why we were hopeful when we saw that USDA had recently updated its website with “easy-to-understand informational guidance” on a range of animal care issues.

Unfortunately, these fact sheets are woefully insufficient to address the numerous problems associated with the agency’s implementation of the AWA.

For example:

  • Eight new fact sheets on Primate Care Topics illustrate the social needs of primates, including the importance of mother-infant relationships and problems with social isolation for monkeys and apes. This is critical information for regulated facilities to incorporate into their practices, but these infographics are not a real substitute for formal guidance on how to meet the AWA’s primate psychological well-being requirements, as we requested in a legal petition in 2015.

  • Three new fact sheets on Nondomestic Cat Care Topics highlight the fact that captive big cats develop metabolic bone disease when fed improper diets. But USDA has failed to amend its regulations, as we requested in a 2012 petition, to address the primary cause of big cat suffering: the endless cycle of cats bred only to be torn away from their mothers as infants to be used for photo ops and bottle feeding. Qualified facilities housing big cats should already be well versed in carnivore dietary needs, and the real issue is that the agency needs to take action to prevent public contact with these animals to prevent a lifetime of medical and behavioral problems.

  • Four new fact sheets on Bear Care Topics—from nutrition to habitat design—are useful but insufficient. We have long advocated that the agency adopt formal standards for humane bear treatment, as the animals are currently only protected by generic catchall regulations that do not apply to bear-specific behavior.

  • Four new fact sheets on Canine Care Topics include basic information about dental and coat care. For our part, we continue to await the implementation of necessary regulations related to dental care and grooming as requested in our 2015 petition for rulemaking .

The posting of such rudimentary information in the form of fact sheets leaves us with troubling implications concerning the regulated businesses of the entities involved. Rather than putting glossy infographics online, the USDA should be taking stronger action on enforcement and reform across the range of the enterprises it regulates.

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