The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for ensuring that businesses that use animals—such as roadside zoos, research labs and commercial dog breeders (a.k.a. puppy mills)—meet certain standards of care under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). However, the USDA is failing animals across the country by ignoring its already-weak inspection policies and giving licenses to puppy mills and other businesses that have not been properly inspected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This abandonment of inspection protocol is surely leading to increased suffering for dogs in puppy mills, who typically are kept in cramped cages and filthy conditions for the sake of maximizing profit.
The USDA seems to be using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to waive inspections for these facilities. Since March 2020, individuals and business who want to open a roadside zoo or breed dogs for sale in pet stores need only fill out an application and participate in a conference call before they are approved to operate.
Public records requested by the ASPCA show the USDA issued “variances” to applicants who applied for a USDA license but have never been inspected by the agency. The “variances” allowed these commercial breeders and zoos to “conduct regulated activity” without a license. Those same facilities are now receiving licenses through virtual inspections—including a zoo in Jackson, Mississippi. While USDA officials chose not to inspect the zoo in person, allegedly due to coronavirus concerns, this same zoo is currently open to visitors.
The USDA has not shared any guidelines or procedures on what these virtual inspections look like, how many businesses are operating under this new variance system or whether the agency plans on requiring an in-person inspection in the future.
The USDA has been repeatedly criticized by animal welfare groups, Congress and its own internal auditors for its lax inspection and enforcement processes. Serious animal care issues are rarely noted on the USDA’s inspection reports, and even when they are, the agency rarely takes action against the facility, such as by issuing a fine or suspending their license.
The ASPCA firmly believes the USDA should immediately stop licensing facilities that have not been properly inspected to confirm they meet the minimum standards of the AWA. This agency’s continued carelessness further jeopardizes the health, safety and well-being of the thousands of animals who are kept prisoners in these facilities. You can help hold the USDA accountable by signing our petition urging it to step up and truly protect animals under its oversight.
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