The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with enforcing the Horse Protection Act. However, in recent accounts, the USDA has lost all transparency, which was once a source of accountability, according to The Washington Post.

The Horse Protection Act was created to protect Tennessee Walking Horses from the illegal and inhumane act of soring. This would blister the coronary band around the hoof in order to achieve a higher step in the horse’s gait, known as the “Big Lick.” As of January 2017, the USDA has put a ban specifically on soring devices and chemicals. The Act’s purpose is to protect other breeds as well, not just the Tennessee Walkers; however, a recent lawsuit has made waves with the USDA after Lee and Mike McGartland appealed their suit.

The lawsuit came about after the McGartlands entered their Tennessee Walking Horse The Royal Dollar in the 74th annual Red Carpet Show of the South in 2012. Despite placing third, the horse was observed as being sore in a post-show inspection. These horse owners have had several horses disqualified due to allegations of soring, according to Science Mag. Because the McGartlands were accused, their names appeared on the public list of offenders, eliciting their lawsuit against the USDA.

The USDA had previously kept public record of offenders available online for anyone to see, but it has moved to only releasing information in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the last 2 years. After the McGartlands’ outcry over their privacy being breached by having been added to the public list, the USDA removed every public listing. Now, requesting records in compliance with FIOA doesn't guarantee full discloser, since records are released in redacted form.

“The McGartlands sued, arguing that the enforcement program denies due process to those accused of violations and breaks privacy laws by publishing personal information,” The Washington Post writes. Their names had appeared in several warnings, calling them “violators” on the public USDA database. 

The public nature of the information seemed to be an effective deterrent to offenders, and with its removal, animal activists are concerned about animal well-being now that accountability is harder to come by.

In 2016, the USDA stopped posting enforcement records. In February 2017, it removed all animal welfare and horse protection records from the public. It blamed the horse show lawsuit as the cause. And so, as the public records declined, so did enforcement actions with hearings being suspended by USDA judges so the cases wouldn’t affect another Supreme Court case at the time unrelated to horse or animal welfare.

There were 239 cases of animal welfare enforcement initiated in 2016, according to a graph from the USDA. In 2018, there were 15 cases. In 2016, there were 192 warnings given. In 2018, there were 39. 

“But the agency says no administrative proceedings — complaints filed or hearings — took place between May 2017 and September of [2018],” reports The Washington Post.

After much outcry, the USDA is making changes. They have reposted the cases for public record, but the cases have been redacted, leaving out important information. Where the reports once recorded the number of animals, this is no longer included. Bernadette Juarez, deputy administrator of USDA’s animal care program touches on how the agency has re-evaluated its enforcement process. Instead of warnings taking 365 days to be issued, “compliance specialists” must now contact alleged violators within 60 days of inspection to inquire about changes made. 

“We can’t rely on the enforcement process alone to achieve compliance,” Juarez says. “The entire goal here is to ensure compliance of all licensees as quickly as possible.” At the moment, the interactions are not recorded as public record. It is unknown what records exist that could be requested under FOIA. 

Another problem in their changes is the introduction of announced inspections. While Juarez says scheduling will allow multiple visits and ensure relevant staff is present, animal advocates worry that violators will clean up their act before enforcers arrive. 

For Juarez, this doesn’t pose a problem. If violators can clean up the conditions, it “demonstrates they can comply, and we would expect them to sustain compliance,” says Juarez. 

There are mixed feelings amongst certain animal groups. Some are pleased that the USDA is backing off. Others are concerned about proving their validity. Joe Watson, chief executive officer (CEO) of Petland, sells puppies to about 80 stores nationwide and had relied on the public nature of the reports. He only sold to those with USDA reports that were clean for 2 years. Now, Petland will have to rely on the breeders to supply the reports.