National Geographic has come out swinging over the Trump Administration's decision to hide online records of animal welfare violations, a move that will "rob journalists, investigators, and the public of timely information and takes pressure off abusers."
Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These are the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the U.S.—including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.
These records have revealed many cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, incidents that, if the reports had not been publicly posted, would likely have remained hidden. This action plunges journalists, animal welfare organizations, and the public at large into the dark about animal welfare at facilities across the country. The records document violations of the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that regulates treatment of animals used for research and exhibition. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which has maintained the online database, cites privacy concerns as justification for the removal.
Critics question that reasoning. The agency has long redacted sensitive information from these records, and commercial facilities do not necessarily have the same right to privacy as private individuals. “The citizens of the United States deserve to see that information,” says Dan Ashe, head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the USDA's removal of records is “not in the interest of credible, legitimate animal care facilities. What [the action] does is it erodes public confidence, because when people see something like that, they're inclined, rightfully, to think that the government is trying to shield something from their view.”