OPINION: Costly USDA Proposal Would Spend More Tax Dollars And Help Animal Abusers

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For years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been using your tax dollars to help animal-exploiting outfits like circuses, puppy mills, and roadside zoos, even when they violate the law. Now the agency is proposing to use even more taxpayer money to prop up these outfits.

The agency should be shutting them down.

Consider Henry Hampton, a notorious animal dealer. In addition to conducting a swift trade in animals, Hampton operates shoddy roadside zoos in North Carolina and Ohio where he confines more than 1,000 animals, including giraffes, kangaroos, lemurs and zebras, depriving them of basic things like adequate veterinary care, shelter, and water, according to well over USDA 200 citations.

With the aim of ensuring the humane care and treatment of animals, the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requires operators like Hampton to obtain licenses from the USDA and undergo inspections. Here’s the problem: Even when it documents egregious animal welfare violations, the USDA automatically renews licenses — and it does so to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars.

The agency recently renewed Hampton’s animal welfare license after inspecting and citing him for a host of repeat violations, including failing to provide veterinary care to an antelope who was limping and in pain — the facility hadn’t even noticed that the animal was suffering — and for using a paralytic drug that can cause animals to suffocate while they’re fully conscious. This was the 18th time in less than three years that the USDA cited Hampton for the drug.

But that didn’t stop the agency from yet again renewing the license he needs to continue profiting off of animals.

The cost of issuing that license? For Hampton, just a few hundred dollars. For taxpayers, a few thousand dollars at least, based on data from the USDA. With approximately 6,000 animal-welfare licensees out there, that adds up to millions of taxpayer dollars annually.

Despite the fact that federal law requires licensing programs to be self-sustaining, the USDA hasn’t adjusted animal-welfare licensing fees — even for inflation — in three decades. Last week, at long last, the agency proposed changing these fees. But instead of doing the common sense — and legally required — thing and increasing them, the USDA proposed lowering them to just $40 a year.

What’s more, while the USDA has also proposed conditioning license renewal on compliance with minimum welfare standards — a longstanding statutory requirement that the agency has been ignoring for decades despite outcry from its own Office of Inspector General (OIG) and a slew of lawsuits — it has given with one hand and taken away with the other: While saying it will finally deny license applications from chronic violators like Hampton, it simultaneously proposes to allow these businesses to continue to operate despite the denial until they can be given a full trial-type hearing.

That’s right: The USDA wants to use even more of your tax dollars so that animal exploiters who have already had an opportunity to appeal their citations and to come into compliance can receive excessive process. More than a quarter century ago the USDA’s OIG noted that the reliance on such hearings interferes with the agency’s ability to protect animals. Once again, the USDA is proposing to make a bad situation worse.

For those who don’t want tax dollars spent on subsidizing licenses for chronic animal abusers and allowing them to stay in business even when they fail to meet minimal welfare requirements,  the USDA is taking comments on its proposals until May 21.

Delcianna J. Winders (@DelciannaW) is vice president and deputy general counsel at the PETA Foundation, adjunct faculty at Vermont Law School, and the author of a series of recent law review articles about the Animal Welfare Act.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.