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Critics blast outsourcing federal animal inspections

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking feedback on its idea to use inspections from private, third-party organizations to determine if zoos, research labs and animal breeding faclities are complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act. Opponents spoke out against the idea at a "listening session" in Tampa on Thursday, fearing it would endanger animals like this white tiger photographed at Dade City's Wild Things in 2013. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Mar. 8, 2018

TAMPA — Federal officials came here to get public feedback on an idea to outsource some inspections of zoos, animal breeders and research laboratories.

The response from the majority of those who showed up to Thursday's meeting at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel: Don't do it.

A parade of speakers stepped up to the lectern and said using information from private, third-party groups to confirm facilities are complying with federal law would effectively allow foxes to guard the henhouses.

"This misguided proposal is not the answer," said Michigan State University College of Law professor Carney Anne Nasser, who is director of the Animal Welfare Clinic there.

RELATED: Trump blocks access to puppy mill inspections as Florida weighs dog store legislation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspectors currently conduct routine, unannounced inspections at least once a year to make sure licensed and registered facilities are complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act. Some facilities also work with private membership groups and accrediting organizations, and federal officials are considering whether to recognize inspections by those groups as evidence of compliance with the law.

The goal of the proposal is to free up inspectors who work in the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, to spend more time in facilities that have more checkered histories when it comes to complying with the law, said Bernadette Juarez, deputy administrator of the USDA's Animal Care Program.

"USDA is not looking to abdicate its inspection responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act in any way," Juarez said at the start of one of five "listening sessions" being held across the country.

"What we're looking to do through this program, if we were to go forward, is use it as a way to determine how often we should visit facilities that are in relative good standing so that we can focus our inspection resources on facilities that would benefit from more frequent visits from the USDA."

RELATED: Judge bans Dade City's Wild Things from owning tigers

But most of the two dozen who spoke said the agency would be shirking its duties.

They fear the system would allow industry groups to submit favorable inspection reports instead of those from government inspectors. Critics also worry that inspection reports, which the USDA has already made more difficult for the public to access, would be impossible to obtain from private groups.

"Allowing licensees to effectively self-police because APHIS does not have the resources to do its job of upholding the Animal Welfare Act is unfortunately an abdication of the agency's responsibilities," said Jennifer Leon, director of outreach for Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. "Conflicts of interest and problems transparency are inevitable."

Nasser said the USDA's Office of Inspector General has already found the agency is failing to do an adequate job of enforcing federal law in commercial dog breeding facilities, zoos and research labs, yet recommendations for changes from the inspector and proposals for tighter rules have gone unaddressed.

"There a number of opportunities the USDA has ignored or dragged its feet on that would actually serve as a meaningful effort to better ensure AWA compliance and that would also greatly reduce agency burden," said Nasser, who also serves as executive director of the Wildcat Conservation Legal Aid Society.

Instead, she said, "the agency is becoming less transparent and more tolerant of bad actors and bad behavior that endangered animals and the viewing public. That is the perfect storm for more animals to suffer."

Some speakers who could be on the receiving end of private inspections also voiced concerns. They worry that biased private inspectors could try to undermine their operations.

"My concern with third party inspections is who facilities them and the credentials they possess," said Monica Welde, president and chief executive office of Bearadise Ranch, a Myakka City operation that trains bears to perform in movies and commercials and runs Welde's Big Bear Expedition at the Florida State Fair.

"Animal rights groups are not experts in animal care and husbandry. They are seeking to advance their agenda. I would only be comfortable with zoological experts and veterinarians."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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