USDA accused of ignoring animal welfare violations in favor of business interests
- Wildlife Watch
Former USDA employees say inspectors were discouraged from documenting poor welfare.
Published October 13, 2021
15 min read
During a 2017 inspection of Monterey Zoo, formerly known as Wild Things Animal Rentals, Inc., in Salinas, California, federal officials found a squirrel monkey, kept alone in a cage, with a chain dangling from its waist. An elderly kangaroo was “exhibiting tremors and vision loss,” a federal inspector wrote in an internal memo. A rodent died after several days of declining health, without receiving veterinary care, the memo said.
Two inspectors from the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), detailed these problems in an internal memo after a routine check of the zoo on September 25, 2017. But the memo included a surprising twist: “Photos and videos from the day of inspection will be discarded.” The USDA’s one-page official inspection record made no mention of possible infractions and judged Monterey Zoo to be fully compliant with the Animal Welfare Act.
The inspectors had noted even more possible violations that were absent from their final report: Nearly all the zoo’s medications had expired; elephants had an itchy, painful skin condition; and a muntjac, or barking deer, had overgrown hooves that hadn’t been tended. (According to the inspectors’ memo, the zoo denied one claim, saying the sick rodent was at the vet when it died.)
The internal USDA memo, obtained by the animal rights group PETA under a Freedom of Information Act request and shared exclusively with National Geographic, highlights one example in a pattern of federal officials’ failure to act on potential welfare violations.
Several former USDA inspectors and senior staff interviewed by National Geographic say overlooked welfare concerns such as those at Monterey Zoo have become more common in the past six years, because of what they assert became a practice of prioritizing business interests over animal welfare. Between 2015 and 2020, U.S. enforcement actions brought against licensed animal facilities fell by 90 percent, according to a PETA assessment.
Charlie Sammut, founding director of the Monterey Zoo, defended standards at his facility, underscoring that his zoo was given a clean report. “Monterey Zoo is truly an exemplary and model zoo to all smaller zoos in the country,” he said in an October 8 email to National Geographic. He also expressed concern that the internal USDA memo was “made available to others without the facility even knowing it existed.”
For animal advocacy groups like PETA, the contrast between the clean inspection report and the internal memo raising concerns provides new details about an issue they’ve been raising for years. “We’ve known that the USDA has miserably failed to enforce the AWA,” says Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation’s director of captive animal law enforcement. “But this, for the first time, shows that the USDA’s misconduct really goes much deeper than previously we had known.”
USDA spokesperson Andre Bell disputed this claim, insisting in an email that the USDA “has never wavered in its mission to ensure the humane treatment of animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act. We continue to conduct inspections and work with facilities to ensure they are in compliance with regulations.”
Bell said potential violations were left off the Monterey Zoo’s final inspection report because the zoo was “making improvements at the time of the inspection” and that the facility “was already in the process of addressing them.”
USDA officials pointed out issues for the zoo’s benefit, Sammut added. “USDA post-inspection interviews are meant to be educational, productive, and aimed at bettering all facilities…some of the content in those interviews [are] teaching moments while other matters discussed are meant to alert the facility of further, more serious action to be taken,” Sammut said. “In our opinion, USDA accomplishes the incredible task of inspecting every zoo (and private facility) in the country…with an unbiased agenda and a common goal of protecting the best interests of the animals.”
‘Systematic dismantling’ of animal welfare oversight
Critics disagree, saying the USDA shifted its emphasis toward accommodating business interests during the Obama administration. Animal welfare advocates say it has taken a toll on the well-being of the animals in regulated zoos and attractions that don’t meet high standards.
In 2015, the USDA released a five-year strategic plan for its plant and animal inspection division stating that it was “developing better, faster business processes to improve our customers’ experience and deliver services more cheaply and effectively.” The customers, Bell told National Geographic, are the people and businesses that interact with the USDA.
One way the USDA’s plan said it would ensure humane treatment of animals was by strengthening collaboration with the facilities it regulates and working to help “minimize costs” associated with violations. But in practice, this amounted to “a systematic dismantling of [the] animal welfare inspection process and enforcement,” says William Stokes, an assistant director of animal welfare operations at the USDA from 2014 to 2018.
Veterinarian Katie Steneroden, who worked as a USDA inspector between 2017 and 2018, says it was rare for inspectors to issue Animal Welfare Act citations. When she was shadowing other inspectors during her training and saw welfare problems, she says, “I’d be like, well OK, this is surely going to be a citation.” But the inspector would say to the facility manager, “‘Oh, will you just do something about that next time?’”
A former employee, who worked for several years in the USDA’s Animal Care unit and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, calls 2017—when potential infractions at Monterey Zoo went unreported—“the height of the reign of terror.” Inspectors “would have legitimate concerns and be afraid to cite them,” the former employee says, adding that in some cases, inspectors were told not to list certain infractions or to downgrade the severity of a citation. Those who did speak out were reprimanded, the employee recalls, and their careers could stall. There was a “mass exodus” of nearly three dozen USDA animal care employees in 2017 and 2018, and the agency is still reeling, says the employee, who left in 2019. “I think the agency suffered tremendously.”
“It was a really toxic environment,” Stokes agrees, and animal welfare deteriorated because of it.
The USDA’s Bell did not respond to questions about work culture in the Animal Care unit.
“How do you replace that kind of institutional knowledge and memory?” Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute, in Washington, D.C., says of the resignations of USDA animal care workers since 2017. When new inspectors replace those who have left, “all that they know is plunging enforcement, right? They have nothing to compare it to.”
While enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act has reached new lows in recent years, it “has been problematic for quite a long time,” he notes. In publications dating back to 1992, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has criticized the agency’s Animal Care unit for not inspecting facilities often enough, not enforcing timely correction of violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and not penalizing violators.
Even when facilities were cited, the fines for breaking animal welfare laws are “so low that violators regarded them as a cost of business,” the OIG said in a 2010 report, and many are repeat violators. Furthermore, reports noted, inspectors have incorrectly reported violations and wasted limited resources by conducting hundreds of inspections of facilities that “had not used, handled, or transported any regulated animals for more than two years” because of a policy requiring inspections of all active facilities, even if they had no animals.
Wendy Koch, who worked in the Animal Care unit for 30 years, says she retired last December from her job overseeing and interpreting welfare guidelines because she felt she wasn’t contributing to animal welfare anymore. During the Trump administration, she says, things got even worse; inspectors were ordered to stick to a literal interpretation of animal welfare regulations, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
She recounts that an inspector was stopped from issuing a citation after an animal exhibitor left a gate open, allowing an exotic cat to escape, because “there was nothing in the [regulations] that said employees can’t leave gates open.”
Inspectors need wiggle room to interpret the Animal Welfare Act, Koch argues, because “you can’t write a law or regulation that is going to cover every contingency.”
‘Gutted’ welfare guides
In January 2016, under President Barack Obama, the USDA appointed Bernadette Juarez as the deputy administrator of Animal Care—the first person in that role to have a background in law rather than veterinary care.
Stokes says he believes that Juarez weakened welfare guidelines, causing animals to “suffer immensely.” Previously, for example, the USDA required that animals be euthanized in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines, but under Juarez, this rule was eliminated. According to Stokes, USDA inspectors saw breeders euthanize dogs by shooting them in the head—a method not recommended by the veterinary medical association for routine euthanasia, though it is not prohibited under the Animal Welfare Act.
If the shooter is untrained and a bullet misses the target area, animals can endure a slow, semi-conscious death. The association’s guidelines recommend that a veterinarian administer barbiturates instead. Pressure for cost-cutting by facilities may have been behind the change. “It costs 50 cents for a bullet,” Stokes says. “If you take the animal in to the veterinarian to be humanely euthanized, it may cost you $50.”
National Geographic sought comment from Juarez, who is now deputy USDA administrator of biotechnology regulatory services, but the agency did not make her available.
Stokes asserts that the agency’s inspection guidelines were “gutted” when sections on animal confiscations were removed. This resulted in dwindling confiscations and weakened the USDA’s requirement that all facilities have a plan for veterinary care. Inspectors “were told that if there’s a veterinarian’s name and phone number written on a Post-It, that can constitute an adequate plan for adequate veterinary care,” he says.
In 2018, the USDA removed from its website the animal care policy manual, which had detailed information such as animal auction regulations, exercise requirements for animals in traveling exhibits, and proper diets, leaving facilities with little or no USDA guidance on these matters, Stokes says. None of the guidelines or policy documents removed from the USDA website have been restored yet. Bell says the agency is working on updated confiscation guidance, and in the meantime, some policies listed in the manual have been published in other Animal Care guides online.
Bolstering enforcement in 2021
Enforcement actions have begun to increase again this year, but they still fall short of what they had been before 2015. Through August of this year, up to 34 percent of inspections have resulted in citations, compared with up to 60 percent in 2014, according to an analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute.
The USDA has issued more than 60 warnings so far in 2021, up from none last year; the average used to be between 400 and 600 a year, according to a report USDA issued in 2015.
The agency also suspended three licenses this year compared with only one suspension in 2020—that of Jeff and Lauren Lowe, owners of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, whose drama-filled antics in the Netflix docuseries Tiger King gained them notoriety—and scrutiny from the USDA.
USDA’s Bell says a decrease in citations should be seen not as a negative, but as evidence that the agency’s efforts to ensure animal welfare have paid off. This success has given the USDA ample time to focus on facilities that “cannot achieve or maintain compliance,” he says, and the agency “continues to pursue enforcement actions when necessary.”
Kleiman, of the Animal Welfare Institute, says he’s hopeful that after three years of not confiscating any animals, the agency is once again seizing those it deems to be in danger. But “praising the USDA for resuming confiscations is like praising an NBA player for knowing how to dribble,” he says.
The coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame for the lagging numbers of inspections and confiscations, he acknowledges, but he says the USDA has “fundamental issues that need to be addressed,” including a reluctance to act when animals are suffering.
For example, a June 2021 report from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General on the agency’s oversight of dog breeding facilities, which are also subject to the Animal Welfare Act, found that the agency “did not consistently address complaints it received,” because it “does not have a documented process for responding to complaints or for recording the results of the agency’s actions.”
The findings demonstrate systemic failure at the agency, and the lack of a complaint response process that affects animals at all USDA-regulated facilities, says Delcianna Winders, Animal Law Program director at Vermont Law School.
For example, Moulton Chinchilla Ranch in Minnesota, which had its license revoked on October 8, has been cited for more than a hundred animal welfare violations dating back to 2013, including filthy cages, leaving the body of a newborn chinchilla to decompose, and accumulated feces. Yet for years, the USDA had failed to act, Kleiman says. “If they’re not going to act on Moulton, what are they going to act on?” (Daniel Moulton told National Geographic that the USDA was “going after” him and insisted that he inspected every animal at least twice a day.)
In another case, the USDA inspected two facilities of Iowa dog breeder Daniel Gingerich an unprecedented eight times in July 2021, and inspectors documented more than 70 pages of Animal Welfare Act violations, but never seized any dogs. After he read their official reports, Kleiman says, the facilities can only be described as a “hellscape.” According to the reports, dogs were panting and gasping in the intense summer heat, several had empty or nearly empty water bowls, their coats were heavily matted, and many had skin conditions or oozing lesions. At least three dogs were found dead in two July inspections.
“How that doesn’t trigger an immediate confiscation is beyond me,” Kleiman says. “This is criminal cruelty.”
The USDA’s website, where confiscations are listed, makes no mention of any confiscations of Gingerich’s dogs. On September 7, about six months after the first documentation of apparent violations at his facilities, the USDA suspended his license for 21 days. Later that month, the USDA filed an official complaint against him. About a week later, the Department of Justice got a court order requiring him to stop breeding temporarily, to have every dog examined by a veterinarian, and to have those records sent to the DOJ, arguing that he’s put the health of hundreds of dogs in “serious danger.” Gingerich did not respond to requests for comment.
Vermont Law School’s Winders says she’s waiting to see if the new administration will improve enforcement. “The last few years [have been] worse than ever. This moment might be starting to turn around,” she says.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to [email protected]