Federal report blasts APHIS Animal Care inspectors

Federal inspectors responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) failed to penalize or fine some commercial breeders that kept dogs in horrendous conditions, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Even after discovering dogs that were tick-infested, or kept in cages surrounded by noxious pools of feces, or even dogs that were so starved they were eating other dogs that had starved to death before them, many inspectors with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) Animal Care unit took little or no action, the report says.

USDA investigators found numerous problems with APHIS Animal Care’s enforcement activities over a three year period of Fiscal Years 2006-2008. The findings included the following:

  • Animal Care’s enforcement process was ineffective against problematic dealers
  • Animal Care inspectors did not cite or document violations properly to support enforcement actions
  • APHIS’ new penalty worksheet calculated minimal penalties
  • APHIS misused guidelines to lower penalties for AWA violators
  • Some large breeders circumvented AWA by selling animals over the Internet

During the three-year period, Animal Care inspected more than 8,000 licensed dealers. During a re-inspection of 4,250 violators, inspectors found that more than half of them had repeated violations. APHIS’ Dealer Inspection Guide states that inspectors must recommend an enforcement action for repeat violators. But more than half of the inspectors opted to take no action against repeat violators, since “no action” was one of the official “enforcement actions.” This choice has since been removed from the Guide.

In some instances, violations were downgraded and monetary penalties were arbitrarily reduced for “good faith” efforts, even when there was evidence against this. In other cases, Animal Care inspectors did not correctly report violations, or when they did, they did not take photos or collect other evidence to support their reports.

For its investigation, the OIG accompanied Animal Care unit personnel on visits to 50 breeders and 18 brokers in eight states. Each of the breeders or brokers had been cited for at least one violation in the three years prior to the OIG visits. The OIG found numerous examples of APHIS Animal Care’s “leniency towards violators, the ineffectiveness of its enforcement process, and the harmful effect they had on the animals.”

During a visit to a breeder in Oklahoma, the Animal Care inspectors cited the breeder with 11 violations, including three direct violations, meaning the health of the animal was affected.

“One of the direct violations involved a dog that had been bitten by another dog,” the report says. “The first dog was left untreated for at least 7 days, which resulted in the flesh around the wound rotting away to the bone.”

The dog in question was taken to a veterinarian and euthanized, but almost a year after the violation was discovered, the breeder had still not been fined.

In another case, Animal Care inspectors cited an Oklahoma breeder for 29 violations between 2006 and 2007. More than a year after the initial inspection, no enforcement action had been taken. In a follow-up inspection nearly two years after the first violations, the inspector found starving dogs that were feeding on the bodies of five other dead dogs, but did not confiscate the animals. As a result of the lack of enforcement at that facility, 22 additional dogs died. The reason given to OIG for not confiscating the animals was that Animal Care regulations require that violators are given an opportunity to correct the condition before confiscation can occur.

Quick response

In response to the report, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he took the findings very seriously, though he pointed out that most of the violations occurred under his predecessor.

“APHIS has put together an action plan to address the OIG recommendations, as well as ensure the Agency enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to the fullest extent possible,” Vilsack said in a statement “We are taking immediate actions to strengthen our enforcement of the AWA, specifically in the areas of enforcement, penalties and inspector training."

Gail Golab, DVM, PhD, head of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division, said the OIG’s findings have spurred the agency into action.

“The report appears to have already impacted the inspection process, resulting in the release of an Enhanced Animal Welfare Act Enforcement Plan,” Golab said. “The plan includes a shift from an education focus for problematic dealers to an enforcement focus, initiatives designed to improve inspector performance, and seeking legislation regarding the Internet sale of dogs.”

Under the plan, APHIS has promised to take specific actions, including:

  • Creating an "Inspection Requirements" document that will provide guidance for employees on enforcement action options
  • Improving documentation of violations
  • Creating a separate Animal Health and Welfare Enforcement Branch within Investigation and Enforcement Services to improve expertise and timeliness in AWA-related enforcement
  • Clarifications in processes by which animals may be confiscated
  • Developing formal procedures by which USDA-APHIS/Animal Care inspectors may refer violations to state or local authorities that have felony laws addressing animal cruelty
  • Developing a new Investigation Tracking and Enforcement Management System to improve oversight and monitoring of investigations and enforcement actions
  • Improved and expanded training opportunities; more active ;supervision of inspectors
  • Revising penalty worksheets to ensure that penalties are not discounted to ineffective levels
  • Publicizing violations of the AWA (an expected deterrent).

The first publicized violations are scheduled to be published online this month, according to the APHIS website.