Dogs with sores on their paws and missing fur. Sick rabbits living in a trashy building. A kennel two degrees hotter than the 85-degree legal limit. Sharp-edged enclosures littered with excrement.

These were some of the conditions inspectors found in recent years at Minnesota breeders that resulted in warning letters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those letters were regularly posted for years on the USDA website.

No longer.

On Feb. 3, the USDA removed thousands of records relating to its enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act. In its place on the website was a statement that cited pressure from a lawsuit that challenged its transparency policy.

A statement posted four days later noted that “the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy.”

On Friday afternoon, the USDA reposted inspection records and annual reports for research facilities. Other missing records will be reposted if “appropriate,” the agency said.

The changes confirmed the fears of many transparency advocates who believe the Trump Administration will put new restrictions on what the government shares with the public.

In recent months, a coalition of university researchers downloaded vast quantities of climate change data from federal agencies so the records would survive even if purged by the new administration.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, could not be reached for comment Friday. Its Feb. 7 statement noted that it already had started to remove some data under the Obama administration, such as the mailing addresses of violators.

The USDA’s removal of enforcement data was cheered by some groups that represent horse owners and farmers who argue that the agency’s willingness to share records was exposing them to harassment.

They were talking about animal rights organizations, which have aggressively used inspection reports, warning letters and other records to expose inhumane conditions in research facilities, breeding operations and circuses.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based group, plans to file a lawsuit next week challenging the USDA’s action.

“It really boggles my mind to think why the USDA took these records offline,” said Christopher Berry, staff attorney for the fund. He said it deprives the public of valuable information “while at the same time protecting unscrupulous animal facilities and the USDA itself from public criticism.”

Berry said that access to records played a significant role in his group’s legal action against the Cricket Hollow Animal Park, a small zoo in Manchester, Iowa. Two African lions were relocated from the park last summer after a judge found violations of the Endangered Species Act, the Des Moines Register reported.

Enforcement cases that have advanced to a legal proceeding remain available on the USDA website.

For everything else, people will have to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

In 2014, I filed a FOIA request for all USDA enforcement records for Minnesota facilities dating to 2010.

It took two months for the agency to say they wouldn’t give me the records because they already were on its website. They were put there because they were “frequently requested.”

Too popular for their own good, apparently.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.