Nation & World

Case of Iowa raccoons shows USDA shift on animal care

Unit now partners with, rather than penalizes, some violators

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds up a tie with images of pigs on it during the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines. After an appeal from an industry group to a White House adviser from Iowa, Perdue and senior agriculture officials intervened in the department’s investigation of a Southeast Iowa animal raising operation, five former employees said in interviews. (The Gazette)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds up a tie with images of pigs on it during the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines. After an appeal from an industry group to a White House adviser from Iowa, Perdue and senior agriculture officials intervened in the department’s investigation of a Southeast Iowa animal raising operation, five former employees said in interviews. (The Gazette)
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For two days running in summer 2017, the temperature inside a metal barn in southeast Iowa hovered above 96 degrees. Nearly 300 raccoons, bred and sold as pets and for research, simmered in stacked cages. Several lay with legs splayed, panting and drooling, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector wrote.

On the third day, the thermometer hit 100, and 26 raccoons were “in severe heat distress” and “suffering,” the inspector reported. Then a USDA team of veterinarians and specialists took an unusual step: They confiscated 10 of the animals and made plans to come back for the others.

But after an appeal from an industry group to a White House adviser from Iowa, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and senior USDA officials intervened, according to five former employees.

The inspectors and veterinarians now were blocked from taking the remaining raccoons and ordered to return those they had seized.

In the months that followed, the Iowa incident was described by USDA officials at internal meetings as an example of a new philosophy of animal welfare protection that began in the Obama administration and accelerated under the Trump administration.

Leaders of the agency’s Animal Care division told inspectors to treat those regulated by the agency — breeders, zoos, circuses, horse shows and research labs — more as partners than as offenders.

They have been told to emphasize education over enforcement.

INSPECTORS FRUSTRATED

In interviews with The Washington Post, more than a dozen recently departed USDA staffers, including eight veterinarians, said the more lenient approach has curtailed inspectors’ ability to document violations and put animals at risk.

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“It feels like your hands are tied behind your back. You can’t do many things you’re supposed to when it comes to protecting animals. You’re seeing inspectors so frustrated they’re walking out the door,” said Denise Sofranko, who spent 20 years as an inspector and elephant specialist and left at the end of 2017.

The USDA did not respond to questions about Secretary Perdue’s involvement in the raccoon case or to questions about other cases. The agency said in a statement that it is committed to upholding animal welfare laws and has worked hard to make sure licensed facilities understand the regulations. Animal Care is working more closely with businesses and their veterinarians to correct problems, the statement said.

“Our recent efforts have focused on ensuring that licensed facilities comply with the regulations as quickly as possible,” the agency said. “We do not tolerate disregard for animal welfare laws.”

Citations decline

The number of animal welfare citations issued by the USDA has declined dramatically.

In 2016, the agency issued 4,944 citations; two years later, it was 1,716, a drop of 65 percent.

The agency last year launched 19 enforcement cases that can lead to penalties including fines and license revocations against alleged violators — a decline of 92 percent compared with 2016.

The agency also has begun heavily redacting information from inspection reports published online, shielding violators from public criticism. Some reports are now accessible only through Freedom of Information Act requests, which can take months or years to be filled. Many violations are no longer documented on inspection reports.

The USDA attributed the nose-dive in citations in part to staff vacancies and said it expects similar numbers in 2019.

It painted the decrease in citations as a positive sign that its more collaborative approach has reduced violations.

But what agency officials depict as a strategy to more efficiently guide animal businesses and labs to follow the law was described by some Animal Care employees as an abandonment of their mission.

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“The changes that have been made over the past two years have systematically dismantled and weakened the inspection process,” said William Stokes, a veterinarian who oversaw inspectors in 27 states and two U.S. territories as an assistant director from 2014 to 2018. The result, he said, is “untold numbers of animals that have experienced unnecessary suffering.”

Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 amid public outcry about dealers who were stealing pet dogs and cats and selling them to research labs. The Horse Protection Act followed four years later, banning a widespread practice of using chemicals and other painful methods to force horses to adopt a high-stepping gait.

Enforcing those laws is the responsibility of the USDA’s Animal Care. The program has about 200 employees, about half of whom are inspectors. It regulates more than 10,000 animal businesses and research labs and inspects show horses.

Shift under Obama

Signs of a shift in enforcement began in 2016 during the Obama administration, after the naming of a new deputy administrator for Animal Care — Bernadette Juarez, a lawyer who was the first non-veterinarian to lead the unit.

The changes include a greater reliance on counting violations as “teachable moments.”

According to USDA policy, “teachable moments” cannot be applied to violations that affect animal health or welfare.

But records obtained by animal rights groups show several apparent violations — including a pig death, overgrown goat hoofs and dogs kept in too-small enclosures — logged as teachable moments.

“I went out and rode with inspectors and usually saw no one write citations for anything,” said veterinarian Katie Steneroden, who worked as a USDA inspector in Iowa from 2017 to 2018 and said she was horrified by conditions at some dog-breeding operations. “It was like, ‘It’s the first time, so do a teachable moment.’ Well, there’s nothing in the Animal Welfare Act that says first-time offenders should get a teachable moment.’”

Teachable moments

The agency said using teachable moments has prompted the businesses and labs to fix their violations more quickly than lengthy enforcement procedures.

Another recent change is an incentive program that allows facilities to avoid citations by self-reporting even serious violations, including those that resulted in animal deaths. These violations are no longer documented by the USDA, inspectors said.

Industry advocates have hailed the animal inspection changes at the USDA as long overdue.

For years, the Missouri-based Cavalry Group complained to the agency about inspectors’ overreach and subjective interpretation of regulations. A company of animal businesses, it says it exists “to fight the radical animal rights agenda legally and legislatively nationwide.”

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Its president, Mindy Patterson, said she began asking members in 2013 to write affidavits about negative experiences with USDA inspectors.

Patterson secured a meeting in March 2017 with Sam Clovis, the White House’s USDA liaison who formerly was an economics professor at Morningside College and hosted a conservative talk radio show in Sioux City. She said she handed Clovis a 422-page binder of industry complaints.

APPEAL TO CLOVIS

Patterson said she contacted Clovis again four months later, after getting a call from Ruby Fur Farm, the Mahaska County site where USDA inspectors were trying to seize raccoons.

The farm raises ferrets, skunks, foxes and raccoons for the pet industry, according to its website. It also has sold animals to the USDA for research purposes, federal records show.

For years, agency animal welfare inspectors had found violations at the site, such as ill and injured skunks and ferrets; accumulated feces in living spaces; and two ferrets kept in an enclosure with a “dead, decomposing, headless juvenile ferret.”

Patterson said she and her husband, Cavalry Group Chief Executive Officer Mark Patterson, went to the farm during arguments over the raccoons. The farm’s attending veterinarian and the sheriff assured USDA inspectors the raccoons seemed lethargic only “because they’re nocturnal animals,” she said.

In an account sent to Cavalry Group members, Mark Patterson said his group contacted members of President Donald Trump’s agriculture advisory committee and his USDA transition team.

Mindy Patterson told The Post that their main contact was Clovis; Clovis said through a lawyer he disputed some of Cavalry Group’s account but declined to comment in more detail.

The group also emailed Juarez, who responded immediately and told the USDA team to “pause” activity at Ruby Fur, Mark Patterson wrote.

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Four days later, according to Mark Patterson’s account, Perdue ordered a USDA attorney to fly to Iowa — something several former inspectors said they had never known to happen before. The seizure order was revoked.

“We were assured that positive changes will soon be announced that will ensure going forward that (the USDA) will act as more of a partner with its licensees,” Mark Patterson wrote.

Within days, Juarez told senior managers that confiscations were on hold at the direction of Perdue, according to internal correspondence and Stokes, the former assistant director.

Since late 2017, Mindy Patterson said, business members in her group have reported a “notable release of pressure.”

In its statement, the USDA declined to say why it reversed the confiscation but suggested that inspectors had not given Ruby Fur sufficient time to correct the problem. Ruby Fur did not respond to requests for comment.

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