End in Sight to Rubber-Stamped Licenses?

The US Department of Agriculture published a proposed rule in March that should end the rubber-stamping of renewals for dealers and exhibitors licensed under the Animal Welfare Act, regardless of whether they comply with the law’s minimal standards of animal care. AWI has long complained about this practice as, year after year, licensees that subject their animals to appalling mistreatment have had their licenses routinely renewed, resulting in the continued suffering of untold numbers of animals.

In its comments on this proposal, AWI supported this move, which would require breeders, exhibitors, and others to demonstrate compliance with the law through pre-license inspections. All applicants would be required to disclose any past violations of federal, state, or local laws pertaining to animal cruelty or neglect. The USDA would also improve certain standards for the care of dogs.

Our comments, however, noted a number of aspects of the proposal that warrant strengthening. For example, three years is entirely too long for a license to remain in effect; such a lengthy time between renewal applications invites lax oversight by the USDA. The final rule should also put an end to what the USDA has lately been referring to as “teachable moments”—instances in which the USDA consults with (and coddles) alleged violators in order to avoid documenting noncompliances. 

Robust oversight and enforcement is needed to ensure adherence to the law and to meet the intent of the new rule to “prevent individuals and businesses who are unfit to hold a license from obtaining a license or working with regulated animals.” Relying on “education” and trusting industry to correct its problems and avoid repeating them doesn’t work, as the USDA’s own inspector general pointed out in a 2010 audit. 

And while we endorse the immediate implementation of the modest revisions to the standards for dogs pertaining to veterinary care and access to water, we strongly recommend that care standards be improved with respect to all species kept by licensees and registrants. Such an upgrade is long overdue and should be undertaken immediately.

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