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Pressure Mounts on USDA to Enforce Animal Welfare Act – Animal Welfare Institute

Washington, DC—The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is grateful to Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) for continuing to pressure the US Department of Agriculture to adequately enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the primary federal law governing the treatment of animals used for exhibition, research, breeding, and dealing.

Rep. Quigley sent a letter to the USDA on April 27, cosigned by 52 members of Congress, urging the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to strictly enforce the AWA and prioritize the well-being of animals. The letter called on federal regulators to protect animals from unscrupulous dealers and exhibitors and close existing deficiencies in the licensing process.

In response, the USDA presented a selective interpretation of its adherence to the AWA, citing its recently finalized rule on licensing provisions. Indeed, if this rule is strongly enforced, it would end the USDA’s practice of automatically renewing the licenses of dealers and exhibitors, and may stop chronic AWA violators from continuing to operate indefinitely.

However, this change does not go nearly far enough. For instance, applicants will have three chances to pass their pre-license inspections, which will be scheduled in advance. Moreover, it appears that any citations a licensee may receive during unannounced inspections — regardless of how many or how egregious — will not be considered by the USDA in its licensing decisions.

“In the wake of increased public attention to AWA enforcement, I had hopes that USDA would take action to better enforce the law,” Rep. Quigley said. “Unfortunately, in the months since my initial letter, I have grown only more discouraged. USDA must provide Congress and the public with clear, detailed information on how they plan to properly implement and uphold the AWA.”

AWI echoes Quigley’s sentiments and remains deeply concerned about the USDA’s unwillingness to enforce even basic AWA standards of animal care. To cite one glaring example: after members of Congress sent their letter this spring, more information surfaced about the mistreatment of animals at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (G.W. Zoo), which was featured in the Netflix series, “Tiger King.” Photos and video taken by a whistleblower in June revealed young lions at the facility suffering from severe flystrike, a painful condition caused by flies biting and laying eggs on an animal. The hatched maggots then eat the animal’s skin. This condition typically occurs at facilities with poor sanitation, as the flies are drawn to animal waste. The disturbing images showed lions whose ears were raw, bloody, and covered in flies.   

For many years, the USDA failed to take meaningful action against the abuse and neglect of animals at the G.W. Zoo, formerly owned by Joe Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic.” That the facility’s subsequent owner, Jeff Lowe, has also flagrantly violated the AWA speaks to a broader pattern of inaction by the USDA. While the high-profile “Tiger King” facility has drawn media attention, the department’s lax enforcement has allowed similar abuse to proliferate outside the public eye at zoos around the country.

“The USDA has the solemn responsibility of protecting the welfare of animals used by the dealers, breeders, exhibitors, and researchers covered under the AWA, and yet continues to reward those who are chronically out of compliance with the law,” said AWI President Cathy Liss. “AWI will continue advocating for strict enforcement of this law, and is grateful that Rep. Quigley and dozens of other members of Congress share our concerns.”

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