“Come on, animal advocates, let’s move fast! Your big chance has come at last! Want a chance to have your say? Tell it to the USDA!”
WASHINGTON D.C.––The USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS] is, until the end of July 2022, offering the public a unique chance to kibbitz on an “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” meant to guide the agency for the next five years.
APHIS is the agency which, among other duties, enforces the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act. This includes inspecting laboratories, horse shows, zoos, and other animal exhibition facilities.
APHIS is also the agency housing Wildlife Services, the government exterminating company, whose duties focus on killing animals for the benefit of farmers, ranchers, and other public agencies, and on keeping birds out of aircraft engines.
Read all about it!
ANIMALS 24-7 has already submitted an extensive comment on the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework,” appended, and urges all U.S. readers and U.S.-based animal advocacy organizations to add their own two cents’ worth. The opportunity to have a direct say in broad-reaching animal-related public policy is rarely as accessible.
But read the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” first, available as a download here: https://www.regulations.gov/document/APHIS-2022-0035-0001
Many early commenters have expressed opinions that go beyond the scope of the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework,” and would require Congress to amend the legislation that APHIS exists to implement. What the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” is about is what APHIS can do by itself.
Mission statement & core values
The “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” includes some provisions of possible benefit to animals, including a mention of preparing for a possible role in overseeing animal welfare in agriculture, not yet provided for in law, but anticipated on the distant political horizon.
The “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” takes note of “the rise of globalization, advances in technology, climate change, and evolving production practices.”
It begins with “a new mission statement and vision statement, core values, and strategic goals and objectives.”
The new mission statement is simply, “Protecting the health, welfare, and value of our nation’s plants, animals, and natural resources.
The vision statement essentially restates the same concept.
The “core values” include no mention of animals.
APHIS is hiring
The substance of the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” comes under “Strategic Goals and Objectives.”
Rebuilding the depleted APHIS staff is Goal 1. APHIS has not been fully staffed in 30 years, and the experienced staff still at APHIS is rapidly aging out.
“Of the estimated 2.2 million federal employees,” the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” says, “43% are age 50 or older. For APHIS, the percentage of employees in this age bracket is even higher, at 46%. Over the next five years, APHIS will focus on recruiting new talent to ensure the agency’s institutional knowledge is maintained as older workers leave the workforce.”
Note to younger animal advocates with useful skills: APHIS is hiring in practically all departments. But leave your slogan t-shirts home and be aware that enforcing the rules requires working within them.
Zoonotic disease control offers huge chance to reduce animal suffering
APHIS Goal 2 is to “Deliver science‐based solutions that reduce the impacts of zoonotic and emerging diseases and ecosystem changes.
“Seventy‐five percent of emerging infectious diseases found in humans are zoonotic, meaning they impact the health of both humans and animals,” the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” stipulates.
“There has been a surge of outbreak cases by these diseases over the past two decades,” the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” acknowledges. “Early detection and response to zoonotic and emerging diseases is essential in limiting or preventing human outbreaks.
“APHIS will strengthen its ability to prevent, detect, report, and respond to emerging and zoonotic diseases,” the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” pledges.
Few if any government jobs offer more opportunity to reduce animal suffering than zoonotic disease control and prevention.
Opportunities supervising labs & agribusiness
APHIS Goal 3 is to “Protect agriculture from plant and animal diseases and pests,” under which heading the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” promises to “continue to ensure the safety, purity, and effectiveness of veterinary biologics and provide oversight of genetically engineered organisms,” including “to investigate alleged violations of agency‐administered laws and issue enforcement actions.”
APHIS Goal 4, to “Maintain and expand the safe trade of agricultural products,” includes helping to build “regulatory capacity in developing countries to facilitate trade and develop future markets,” a job likely to focus on animal welfare, albeit in connection with raising animals for slaughter.
APHIS Goal 5 is the operating mandate of Wildlife Services: to “Manage wildlife damage and threats to agriculture, natural resources, property, and people.”
Absent an act of Congress, APHIS does not have the authority to kill Wildlife Services, even if it institutionally wanted to. But APHIS policies and priorities can be rearranged to de-emphasize killing wildlife, in favor of non-lethal solutions, more research and development of wildlife birth control (an area in which APHIS has already done more than all other government agencies combined), and continued distribution of “millions of oral rabies vaccination baits,” along with collecting and testing “samples from wild animals to reduce rabies in wildlife and prevent disease spread to people, livestock, and pets.”
This would be samples from animals either found dead under suspicious circumstances or euthanized after exhibiting rabies symptoms.
Animal Welfare Act & Horse Protection Act
APHIS Goal 6, to “Promote the welfare of animals,” involves enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act, and providing “national leadership on the safety and well‐being of pets and other animals in disasters.”
Under this heading, the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” notes that “APHIS has initiated a process to amend the AWA regulations and develop standards for birds to ensure their humane care and treatment,” to “apply to birds not bred for use in research; all birds bred for research are exempt from regulation under the Animal Welfare Act.
“With the new regulations expected to be finalized in the first half of fiscal year 2023,” the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” projects, “APHIS will need to prepare for the implementation of the regulations.”
“The public is more interested in wildlife & livestock welfare than ever before”
This section “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” concludes with a mention that, “While it is unclear how animal welfare legislation and consumer behavior will evolve over time, the agency should prepare for the possibility of increased regulatory responsibility of farm animals.”
The concluding portion of the “APHIS Strategic Plan Framework” adds that “Public perceptions around animal welfare and wildlife in society are evolving. APHIS’ activities directly impacting animals are being scrutinized. The public is more interested in wildlife and livestock welfare than ever before.”
Submit your comments at: https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/APHIS-2022-0035-0001.
This is the ANIMALS 24-7 two cents’ worth:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the APHIS Strategic Plan Framework, which we read carefully several times before responding.
Beth & I here at ANIMALS 24-7 have, between us, more than sixty years of routine experience with most of the major roles of APHIS. Our www.ANIMALS24-7.org news web site, launched in 2014, reports daily from the intersection of animal welfare with public health and safety, reaching an audience of about half a million people per year who are either occupationally or very strongly avocationally engaged in animal welfare, public health, and/or safety issues.
Prior to founding ANIMALS 24-7, I had reported on agricultural, occupational health and safety, and animal welfare news beats for 38 years. Beth had interacted with the subjects of APHIS jurisdiction as police officer, animal control officer, veterinary technician, equine enthusiast, and dog and cat rescuer.
Beth & I are keenly aware that whatever the APHIS Strategic Plan Framework recommends will remain subject to the constraints of federal legislation and Congressionally allocated funding. Those constraints presently preclude several structural changes that we believe would enable the various divisions of APHIS to work more efficiently.
Notably, Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement might be more efficiently and effectively accomplished under the Department of Justice, rather than the Department of Agriculture.
Congress in 1970 placed Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement authority with the predecessor agency to APHIS in the belief that these enforcement roles would focus on matters requiring veterinary expertise, but the subsequent 52 years have demonstrated that most Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement actions require hundreds of hours of investigative and legal work for every hour of veterinary work.
(See our recent article Why the USDA cannot effectively enforce the Animal Welfare Act.)
In view that moving Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement to the Department of Justice is not directly within the APHIS Strategic Plan Framework purview, Beth & I recommend some re-ordering of APHIS priorities under the present APHIS structure.
Specifically, as the APHIS Strategic Plan Framework summarizes under Goal 5, APHIS is mandated to “Manage wildlife damage and threats to agriculture, natural resources, property, and people,” via the Wildlife Services branch.
However, the APHIS Wildlife Services program activity report for 2021, released on March 22, 2022, shows that most Wildlife Services activity barely fits within that mandate, if at all.
Mission creep increasingly evident over the past 20 years suggests that Wildlife Service is increasingly focused on killing non-native species simply because they are non-native, separate from any actual threat they pose to agriculture, natural resources, property, and people.
Wildlife Services kills fewer coyotes now, still #2 mammal target, but kills hundreds of times more starlings
For instance, only 4% of the toll of 1.76 million animals killed were “livestock predators,” but 44% were “invasive” European starlings, a species actually established throughout the U.S. for well over a century and by now thoroughly integrated into U.S. eco-systems.
Large flocks of starlings, to be sure, can menace aircraft on takeoff and landing, and can be a nuisance to certain crops, but so can many other bird species. The Wildlife Services focus on starlings is so disproportionate as to suggest they are a target of convenience rather than necessity; and if they really are problematic enough to constitute 44% of the Wildlife Services workload, fairly obviously some better approaches are necessary, since attempted mass extermination is not accomplishing much.
Subtracting European starlings from the 2021 Wildlife Services killing totals shows that two-thirds of the other birds killed were neither classified as “invasive,” nor listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Depredation Order authorizing Wildlife Services to kill birds under a variety of problematic circumstances.
Pigeons & munias
After starlings, the bird species killed in greatest numbers were 66,574 pigeons and 32,295 munias, both classed “invasive,” but neither of them a significant threat to human health, safety, crops, or endangered wildlife.
Also among the 10 birds on the Wildlife Services hit list who were killed most often were 26,696 nonmigratory Canada geese, 19,170 mourning doves, 18,470 sparrows of five species, 17,633 gulls of 13 species, 16,792 black vultures, 15,096 redwing blackbirds, and 10,166 ravens.
All but the sparrows are native to the mainland U.S., none are directly harmful to humans, and nonmigratory Canada geese and mourning doves are commonly shot for sport by hunters.
Sport hunting & trapping in the name of damage control
Feral pigs and coyotes, the most common North American predator, together made up about two-thirds of the Wildlife Services mammal toll. Next most often targeted were 24,683 beaver, 11,377 prairie dogs, 9,920 ground squirrels of several different species, 9,274 nutria classed as “invasive,” 9,286 whitetail deer, and 9,163 raccoons said to have been suspected of being rabid.
Collateral damage from trapping beaver and nutria included 589 of the 714 river otters whom Wildlife Services acknowledged killing, and 194 of the 875 muskrats.
All of these mammals are also commonly shot or trapped for sport and to sell their pelts.
Wildlife Services conventionally employs recreational hunters and trappers to do animal damage control work. The numbers suggest there is a considerable element of sport hunting and trapping in Wildlife Services’ animal damage control efforts, and that even within the current Wildlife Services mandate there is much room for reducing the killing, simply by eliminating the portion done without actual necessity.
(See our recent article What Wildlife Services did not say about the newly released 2021 body count.)
More narrowly define “invasive”
Much of this could be done by more narrowly defining “invasive.”
This is a term which––and you can and should look it up––practically did not exist in either scientific literature or mainstream media before 1988.
Use of the term “invasive species” gathered momentum after the Natural Resources Defense Council began using it in direct mail fundraising appeals in 1995.
Then, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, media usage of the term “invasive species nearly doubled in one year, tripling in two years, only distantly followed by usage in scientific literature.
We are now 21 years past the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and should be past associated knee-jerk fear of being “invaded.”
Reallocate funds from killing wildlife to humane law enforcement
Scientific understanding and appreciation of adaptive species has significantly increased in recent years, while the USDA in general, APHIS in specific, must be acutely aware that most of the crops and livestock APHIS is mandated to protect are both non-native and abundant at what would be considered “invasive” amounts if the term “invasive” were to be applied with consistent criteria to cultivated as well as non-cultivated animals and plants.
Ratcheting down the Wildlife Services obsession with killing non-native species and expenditure of resources on what amounts to subsidized sport hunting could enable APHIS to re-allocate considerable funding to improved Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement.
Improved Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement should come with increased responsiveness to public complaints, and with increased visibility for enforcement actions undertaken in response to complaints.
Some background is in order. Following the Animal Welfare Act amendments of 1985 and especially the further amendments of 1990, APHIS during the last years of the George H. Bush administration and first two years of the Bill Clinton administration appeared to be making a real effort to demonstrate responsiveness to public complaints.
For example, on February 18, 1993, APHIS closed the Canadian border to imports of random source dogs and cats for laboratory use. Within days of the Animal Welfare Act amendments of 1990 taking effect, giving APHIS the tools to take action, APHIS did take action, putting the several most notoriously negligent Class B dealers in New England, all of whom had sold mainly animals imported from Quebec, permanently out of business.
Second, circa 1994, APHIS closed the Vermont View Animal Farm, a petting zoo and large carnivore exhibitor, only three years after it opened, in response to public complaints from visitors about multiple Animal Welfare Act violations, and repeated failures by the owners to comply with “fix” orders.
(Note: this facility was actually located on the New York side of the Vermont state line.)
Timothy McVeigh & “Joe Exotic”
The April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City by right-wing terrorist Timothy McVeigh appeared to end the brief era of relatively quick APHIS responsiveness.
Seven of the 167 people killed by McVeigh’s truck bomb and five of the injured were APHIS personnel.
Soon thereafter, complaints about APHIS not responding to public reports of egregious Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act violations began piling up. Dodgy animal exhibitors such as the notorious “Joe Exotic” proliferated, often operating in flagrant violation of the same health and safety requirements that had been invoked to close the Vermont View Animal Farm.
Responsive to animal use industries, not to the public
Media releases from APHIS announcing Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement actions became fewer and farther between. Media calls were no longer promptly returned.
The lack of evident APHIS responsiveness worsened steadily thereafter. Even a superficial appearance of responsiveness to public and media concerns disappeared during the Donald Trump administration. Under the Joe Biden administration, we are beginning to see marked improvement, including the opportunity to comment on the APHIS Strategic Plan Framework to which this responds, but the present momentum must be sustained.
Job is not to help suspects become more effective criminals
The culture of the USDA in general is, as it should be, a culture of working with agricultural producers to increase and enhance the value of U.S. agricultural production. This helpful and cooperative approach, however, is not appropriate to a law enforcement role. The job of law enforcement must be to stop abusive and negligent practices, not to help the suspects become more effective criminals.
APHIS currently, as the APHIS Strategic Plan Framework mentions, is aware that “In recent years, animal welfare has garnered increased public attention…While it is unclear how animal welfare legislation and consumer behavior will evolve over time, the agency should prepare for the possibility of increased regulatory responsibility of farm animals by developing contingency plans for implementing regulations along a variety of paths.”
Distance v. influence
This is a forward-looking perspective. Preparing for “the possibility of increased regulatory responsibility of farm animals,” however, must include developing a professional if respectful distance from the subjects of regulation, namely farmers, drovers, and slaughterhouse operators, such that it is clear that APHIS will not shy away from enforcing applicable legislation and not participate in a “good old boy” relationship with those who flout the laws.
Ideally, law enforcement roles should be delegated to an agency whose primary role is law enforcement, not facilitating commerce. Since that is not presently an option, APHIS inspectors and prosecutors will need to be shielded to a far greater extent from political pressure to not do their jobs.
The political influence of dog breeders, laboratory animal suppliers, horse show trainers, and wildlife exhibitors, considerable though that is, and damaging as it has been to the APHIS law enforcement role over the years, is very small compared to that of agribusiness.
Mandate comes from the people
In preparing to deal with agricultural animal abuses, APHIS must recognize that the APHIS mandate comes ultimately, if indirectly, from the people of the United States, and that the people will back much stronger law enforcement against animal cruelty and neglect, if APHIS strongly and consistently appeals to the people, by making enforcement actions as public as possible.
Conversely, a policy of keeping enforcement actions quiet and out of sight to avoid embarrassing politically influential people, as has been increasingly the APHIS practice over the past two decades, erodes public confidence that APHIS is doing anything at all, and costs APHIS the public support that it would otherwise enjoy.
Merritt & Beth Clifton, editors