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USDA accused of ignoring animal welfare violations in favor of business interests

AnimalsWildlife WatchFormer USDA employees say inspectors were discouraged from documenting poor welfare.ByRachel FobarPublished October 13, 2021• 15 min readDuring 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…

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 mak

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