Hi, I’m Rachel Fobar, and I write about wildlife crime and exploitation for National Geographic. For this story on the USDA’s enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, I interviewed former USDA employees who say inspectors were encouraged to look the other way when faced with poor welfare. Many believe the agency caters to business interests over animal welfare, and experts say that while enforcement has reached new lows in recent years, it’s been insufficient for decades. Thanks for reading and ask me anything!

Read the full story here: https://on.natgeo.com/30MAuYb

Find Rachel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rfobar

PROOF: https://i.redd.it/xyjgv6zrkpu71.jpg

EDIT: Thanks so much for your questions! I really enjoyed answering them, but I have to run now. Thanks again for your interest!

Comments: 200 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

Davy_boy256 karma

Why is the USDA in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act? It seems like the USDA's agricultural focus doesn't necessarily align with animal welfare.

nationalgeographic322 karma

That’s a great question! When the Animal Welfare Act was passed in 1966, the USDA actually made this very point to Congress, which was deciding which agency should enforce the new law. In a hearing, then-Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman told Congress that “the functions of this Department, insofar as animals are concerned, relate basically to livestock and poultry” and asked “whether it would not be desirable that … [the Animal Welfare Act] be administered by a Federal agency more directly concerned.”

A lot of animal welfare experts think this is the reason we should have an independent federal agency with animal welfare as its sole mandate. One of my sources said the fact that the regulation of animal welfare was foisted upon an agency with fundamentally inconsistent priorities meant that the Animal Welfare Act was set up to fail.

MochiMochiMochi50 karma

That's very interesting. What other federal agencies have any responsibility in this area?

nationalgeographic106 karma

There really aren't any! There is no federal agency in the U.S. that is solely responsible for animal welfare—but some people think one should be created.

DesertBlooms103 karma

Hello Rachel. I live in Las Vegas and have been watching and reporting on the conditions within the Mirage facility for almost a decade now. The animals were covered in a pox condition (visibly, for many years, you can google 'mirage dolphin pox' and my stuff comes up!) and I have witnessed many violations but every report of the facility ends up nearly spotless.

What can I do to ensure that my reports are taken seriously and how can I hold the USDA more accountable?

nationalgeographic71 karma

Hi, thanks for your question! If you haven’t reported your observations to the USDA yet, I would do that. If that doesn’t work, try reporting the facility to a local or national animal welfare group. Hopefully they can help increase accountability.

Almighty_One56 karma

How long until what you do will be considered a felony with an automatic 10+ year sentence?

nationalgeographic32 karma

Thanks for your question! If you're asking about punishments for Animal Welfare Act violations, the USDA usually issues fines, license suspensions, or animal confiscations. Prosecutions and jail sentences are rare.

Almighty_One68 karma

Actually, I meant for reporting violations.

Like 2FalseSteps said. Corporate lobbyists have gone out of their way to lobby for factory farm protections.

I've read a few stories of undercover reporters and/or protestors being arrested and charged for multiple offenses just for reporting violations on large factory farms. As well as legislation being introduced (and passed?) specifically protecting factory farms from reporters.

nationalgeographic58 karma

Ah, I understand your question now! Sorry for the confusion. Covering factory farms is definitely difficult, but since the Animal Welfare Act doesn't cover farmed animals, I didn't report on them for this story. A lot of information was available in public records, and some of these regulated wildlife facilities are open to the public!

VeganMinx41 karma

After doing research for this cause, are you or have you considered being vegan? I can only imagine the horrific things you have witnessed as part of this assignment.

nationalgeographic32 karma

Thanks for your question! Farmed animals are actually not regulated by the USDA, so the Animal Welfare Act doesn't cover them. For this story, I mostly reported on captive wildlife and dog breeders. Covering wildlife definitely makes me think about ethical wildlife tourism and which facilities (like zoos and sanctuaries) are worth visiting!

ElizNewEdge7 karma

They are policed though, aren't they? Perhaps they fall under the domain of the FDA?

nationalgeographic28 karma

Sorry, I should have clarified—the USDA regulates farmed animals, but they are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act. Here's more information on farmed animal welfare: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/farm-animal-protection-faq

steamthief32 karma

Wow, this is quite a topic. How do you manage to stay sane? I imagine you’re seeing, (and exposing) some horrific things.

nationalgeographic44 karma

Thanks for reading! It helps to see/interview all the people who are fighting so hard for animals, including the former USDA employees who came forward. I think the problem here is lack of awareness rather than apathy, because people generally care about animals and want them to be treated well. Walks with my dog also help in the sanity department!

Kendrick_Lamar127 karma

Hi Rachel.

I love animals. I have coexisted with animals pretty much my entire life. I have been been blessed to be able to share in emotional existence with animals. When humans get treated in such horrific fashions as described in your linked natgeo story, we call it a crime against humanity. From my understanding, all mammals have limbic systems and therefore have feelings and moods.

My question to you is: As we march endlessly towards an anthropogenic earth, one that is shaped to meet human needs and desires, will there be any room left for animals? A deer cannot coexist with a highway. Insects cannot coexist with automobiles. Is it even possible to think otherwise? Any sort of captivity is clearly inhumane--but what else is possible? The wild world is shrinking by the hour and our space in time is vastly different than what early homo sapiens experienced.

Thank you for fighting the good fight.

nationalgeographic30 karma

Hi, thanks so much for reading! I also love animals. Something that gives me hope is the number of people fighting for animal rights and welfare—including some of the former USDA employees I spoke to for this story. The reason they came forward is because they were upset at what they saw and wanted to speak up for animals. I think the more people know about the state of animal cruelty in the US (and everywhere!), the more we can combat it.

Siganus26 karma

How are fish covered under USDA enforcement? Hatcheries have millions of fish that are bred and released into the environment to generate significant economic and environmental impact, yet the conditions they live in are rarely discussed in public despite being sub par relative to other captive conditions of conspecifics in public aquariums or terrestrial species in similar settings.

nationalgeographic57 karma

Great question! Fish are actually not covered under the Animal Welfare Act. Neither are farm animals, rats, mice, or reptiles. I think people largely assume all animals are protected under the AWA, but in reality, many are excluded.

Siganus15 karma

Thank you for your response. How can I help make fish covered by the AWA? Or is there a process to amend the act as it currently stands?

nationalgeographic20 karma

This is a tough one—I think there's an emerging fish welfare movement, but as far as I know, there aren't any ongoing pushes to amend the AWA to include fish, unfortunately. I'd recommend reaching out to animal welfare groups that specialize in this!

firefly09020 karma

What was the most surprising or worrisome thing you heard from former USDA inspectors? What kinds of problems did they look the other way on?

nationalgeographic55 karma

Thanks for your question! I would say the most upsetting example I came across while reporting this story was the facilities owned by Iowa dog breeder Daniel Gingerich—inspectors saw dead animals decaying on the property, skeletal dogs, and dogs with oozing lesions and skin conditions. But for months, no action was taken. One of the former inspectors described seeing a dog with an eye lesion that was overlooked (until she called attention to it). Overall, some of the most egregious cases seemed to be in dog breeding facilities.

ElizNewEdge17 karma

How often do you find issues with private animal compounds like the one in Tiger King?

nationalgeographic40 karma

It's hard to say how often this is happening, since there are so many facilities and they can't be monitored 24/7. What I will say is that I think Tiger King is just the tip of the iceberg. Until Tiger King, the park was licensed by the USDA (although they had cited him multiple times).

pariahnus11 karma

Interesting article. Did you by any chance look into federal agencies using animals for testing and whether you found any similar problems of enforcing animal welfare laws in that area?

nationalgeographic27 karma

Thanks for reading! Laboratories are also regulated by the USDA, so lab animals (excluding rats, mice, and a few other species) are theoretically protected by the Animal Welfare Act. Unfortunately, due to the USDA’s lack of enforcement, poor welfare in labs is likely going undetected.

jokingrotten7 karma

Is there anything that you do differently now after doing the research for your article?

nationalgeographic14 karma

In general, researching this confirmed for me that just because a facility has a USDA license, it doesn't necessarily mean animal welfare is protected! It's important to look for other indicators of welfare (like AZA accreditation, for example).

domaintor7 karma

Has it been getting significantly worse due to the potential financial difficulties due to the pandemic, or it’s just deteriorating constantly by ignorance? I think some places might skip a meal or two for those poor animals for whatever cost saving reasons, sadly..

nationalgeographic9 karma

That's a great question—the pandemic has definitely hindered animal welfare regulation. Inspecting facilities has become very difficult, which has unfortunately made it easier for facilities to get away with poor welfare. At the Iowa dog breeder's facilities, where inspectors found dead and starving animals this year, there were no inspections for about a year.

DarkDobe3 karma

"agency caters to business interest"

When is this not the case, ever?

nationalgeographic6 karma

That's generally true, but it should not be the case for an agency tasked with protecting the welfare of animals. In recent years, the USDA has focused on customer service—and according to their spokesperson, their "customers" are the people and businesses that interact with the USDA. But shouldn't a federal agency be serving the animals and the American public, and not businesses?

DarkDobe3 karma

I wholeheartedly agree, but there's endless examples of federal agencies doing absolutely nothing if it means going up against 'money' and aligned interests - which isn't exactly surprising, nor is it limited to the USA.

nationalgeographic6 karma

That's fair, but I think the USDA responds to public pressure, like they did when they took action against the Lowes after Tiger King. So raising awareness about these issues is key!