The federal agency responsible for enforcing animal welfare laws was ineffective in achieving compliance with "problematic” dog dealers, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
The report followed an audit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) animal care unit, which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. In addition to citing the agency’s lack of effectiveness in enforcing the act, OIG took issue with how some violations were documented as well as how penalties were calculated and assessed. The report also highlighted how some large-scale breeders circumvent USDA oversight because they sell dogs over the Internet.
The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) said it hopes the findings will lead to better enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. Already, federal appointed and elected officials have offered administrative and legislative reforms.
As part of its audit, OIG reviewed the animal care unit’s inspections of dog dealers with a history of violations. OIG also visited 81 dealer facilities in eight states.
The report states that the animal care unit believed that education and cooperation would result in long-term dealer compliance and, accordingly, chose to take little or no enforcement action against most violators. Relying heavily on education weakened the agency’s ability to protect the animals, OIG said.
Some inspectors did not correctly report repeat or direct violations and did not always adequately describe violations, according to the report. (Direct violations had a high potential to adversely affect the health and well-being of the animal). As a result, some violators were inspected less frequently, OIG said in the report.
OIG said the agency continued to assess minimal penalties that did not deter violators. In addition, OIG said APHIS inconsistently counted violations, applied “good faith” reductions without merit, allowed a “no history of violations” reduction when the violators did have a history and arbitrarily changed the gravity of some violations and the business size.
OIG noted that some large-scale breeders circumvent the Animal Welfare Act by selling animals over the Internet. This, it said, is due to a loophole that excludes retail stores, which are defined as any outlet where animals are sold only as pets at retail.
OIG provided recommendations for each of the issues raised in the report. For example, OIG recommended that the agency provide more comprehensive training and detailed guidance to inspectors and supervisors on direct and repeat violations and that legislative changes should be proposed to address the Internet loophole.
APHIS agreed to most of the recommendations and offered suggestions for reconciling the two that it did not.
Michael Maddox, vice president of government affairs and general counsel for PIJAC, said the organization has long advocated that substandard breeders follow the law or be put out of business.
“We’re hopeful that this is just going to increase the effectiveness of enforcement in the future and that it will lead to USDA getting the resources they need to be more effective in their job,” he said.
Maddox noted there are many responsible commercial dog breeders who follow animal welfare laws and regulations.
“Whenever you have something like this come out, there’s a tendency to focus on the substandard facilities,” he said. “We think it’s critical that the substandard facilities be addressed, but we don’t want people to be blinded to the fact that there are also quality commercial breeders out there as well. We hope that commercial breeders who are doing a good job will be recognized for that.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that APHIS has put together an action plan to address the OIG recommendations and that the USDA will act as well.
“We are taking immediate actions to strengthen our enforcement of the (Animal Welfare Act), specifically in the areas of enforcement, penalties and inspector training,” Vilsack said. “I am committed to work with Congress to make resources available to carry out this plan and am confident that the changes we are making will significantly strengthen our animal welfare program.”
In response to the report, U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and David Vitter, R-La., introduced a bill that would amend the Animal Welfare Act to “provide further protection for puppies.”
Senate Bill 3424, referred to as the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act, would require licensing and inspection of dog breeders that sell directly to the public and sell more than 50 dogs a year. It also sets forth exercise standards for dogs at breeding facilities.
To view OIG’s audit report, visit www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/33002-4-SF.pdf.