For years, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors have dutifully documented endemic animal suffering at the Moulton Chinchilla Ranch (MCR), a Minnesota chinchilla breeding facility. In 2021, MCR was the only supplier of USDA-licensed chinchillas for research, according to National Geographic and Science. Meanwhile, USDA inspections of the MCR have reported seeing chinchillas, many intended for experimentation, with swollen, tearful, and tightly closed eyes; a thin, insensitive chinchilla, missing part of a leg, brutally “euthanized” by breaking its neck; a dead chinchilla left on top of a cage for so long its rotting body had to be removed.
After failing to confiscate a single chinchilla from the MCR – even though the USDA’s own inspectors issued citation after citation for violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) over a five-year period from 2013 to 2018 – the department finally filed a complaint in November 2018 against the MCR. owner, dealer Daniel Moulton. After even more incomprehensible delays, the case finally went to court in 2021.
In October 2021, USDA Administrative Law Judge Jill Clifton ruled from the bench – a highly unusual decision – that Moulton’s dealer license should be permanently revoked, calling its 213 “willful” violations ” absolutely stunning.” Nevertheless, he was only fined $18,000, less than 1% of the amount allowed by law. To make matters worse, he was allowed to keep nearly 700 languishing chinchillas on his ranch for months while he decided whether or not to file an appeal (and even got several extensions to do so).
In November, less than a month after the judge’s ruling, the USDA again documented multiple breaches of the law as chinchillas on the ranch continued to suffer from a lack of adequate veterinary care and staffing. The following month, in December, my organization, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), sent a letter to the USDA, copying three attorneys from the Department of Justice (DOJ), noting that Moulton continued to put his chinchillas “in grave danger”. One of the unambiguous legal remedies for its violations is confiscation. Again, however, the USDA did not confiscate any of the sick animals.
In Judge Clifton’s decision, she regretted “that it took me so many years to come to this complaint, which was filed on November 29, 2018” and explained that the “very, very long delay” has been caused by government shutdowns, the COVID -19 pandemic, and “a few other hardships”. Notably, Judge Clifton added, “It shouldn’t have taken this long for us to get to this point.”
It took until February 2022 before Moulton declared he no longer had chinchillas, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Meanwhile, last fall the USDA finally revoked the license of Iowa dog breeder Daniel Gingerich, who racked up an unprecedented number of citations for horrific animal abuse. Inspectors documented several dogs under severe heat stress without access to drinking water, even as the heat index soared to 119 degrees Fahrenheit; one was in an emaciated state. Another report showed a badly neglected one-month-old poodle puppy crying and dying as inspectors looked on. As part of a settlement, Gingerich was forced to hand over more than 500 dogs and puppies, but only after the DOJ obtained a landmark injunction against the breeder after indefensible USDA delays.
These two high-profile cases graphically illustrate how the USDA continues to drag its feet instead of taking action to protect animals from immense and preventable suffering. The AWI and other animal rights organizations have long documented the department’s inexcusable failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, the primary federal law intended to provide basic protections to certain animals raised for commercial sale. .
The AWA applies to animal dealers, breeders, exhibitors, handlers and transporters in addition to research laboratories, and establishes minimum standards of care that must be provided to animals, including housing. , handling, sanitation, food, water, veterinary care and protection. extreme weather conditions. The law covers warm-blooded species, but specifically excludes mice, rats and birds bred for research, as well as most farm animals.
It is the responsibility of the Administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, its Animal Care Officers, and its General Counsel to act urgently on disturbing reports of animal cruelty. inspectors, to seize animals in need of rescue and to ensure that this appalling abuse does not continue. The situation has reached a tipping point.
From 2016 to 2020 (while former President Donald Trump was in office), there was a 67% drop in the number of AWA inspections where citations were documented, according to AWI research. New inquiries dropped by almost 90% during this period. In a July 2021 article on Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, National Geographic pointed out that the USDA under the Trump administration had been crippled when it came to enforcing animal welfare law. But the USDA’s failure to properly enforce the AWA predates the Trump administration and has persisted for decades, as National Geographic reported later in October 2021.
Gingerich, the former dog breeder, was allowed to continue operating after hiding dogs from USDA inspectors, destroying required acquisition records and operating “facilities in 10 different locations in Iowa, including several are unlicensed,” the Iowa Capital Dispatch said, citing federal records. In 2021 alone, before the USDA stepped in, inspections of Gingerich operations produced 25 reports and over 200 citations.
In the case of MCR, the USDA has known about the appalling conditions since at least 2013. Yet the department has never acted on what its inspectors dutifully recorded by confiscating a single chinchilla or notifying the DOJ, as mandated by the AWA, once it determined that the health of the chinchillas was in serious danger. Since 2014, Moulton has accumulated more direct citations (the most serious type of critical citation) than any of the other 10,000 licensees and registrants regulated by the AWA. The USDA has documented direct citations every year from 2014 through 2021, including an inspection announced in 2018, which found 22 chinchillas in need of veterinary care.
Chinchillas have large ears and their hearing is similar to that of humans. They are therefore often used for invasive and terminal ear disease research. Moulton Chinchilla Ranch has provided chinchillas for studies affiliated with the National Institutes of Health, US Navy, Harvard Medical School, and more, although lab animals with unresolved health issues may compromise the integrity of the research. Taxpayer money was not only used to fund potentially flawed research, but also to support Moulton’s operations.
On the first full day of testimony at Moulton’s administrative hearing, veteran inspector Brenton Cox – discussing the 2014 inspections – said the MCR was the worst facility he had ever seen, that he was having nightmares and using the MCR as a training tool for what installation shouldn’t be. During the hearing (which the AWI monitored), the USDA said that some chinchillas suffered from egg- or golf-ball-sized swellings and indicated (over Moulton’s objections) that they were suffering.
But where was this outrage and validation of the vital work of inspectors years ago, when the department could have acted on their findings and saved so many chinchillas from this continued abuse? Instead, in 2019 the USDA helped Moulton with the paperwork to renew his license to operate as a reseller.
Moreover, the research industry enabled Moulton’s cruelty. The Laboratory Animal Science Buyers Guide, published by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), listed MCR as the only chinchilla supplier despite knowing the USDA citations. In July, National Geographic said the guide also included the MCR in its vendor showcase, which touts reaching customers within AALAS’ “trusted network.” Prominent research figures, including Sanford Feldman, director of the Center for Comparative Medicine at the University of Virginia, testified for Moulton and actively participated in his defense.
It is clear that there must be political will to ensure that the USDA will stop allowing facilities to persistently and blatantly fail to comply with AWA regulations and start taking action sooner, and not just when a case becomes highly publicized. In May 2021, U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois reintroduced the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act, which would protect animals from unscrupulous dealers and exhibitors and close existing loopholes in the USDA licensing process. that endanger animals and allow chronic offenders to escape punishment. These offenders include marine theme parks, roadside zoos and exotic wildlife operations such as the infamous Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park featured in the Netflix series “Tiger King,” which is now closed to the public.
Additionally, legislation introduced in December 2021 by Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne would require USDA inspectors to document and report all AWA violations, confiscate suffering animals, and impose penalties. to dog dealers. The bill was named Goldie’s Act in memory of a golden retriever who was one of hundreds of neglected and abused dogs at the USDA-registered facility in Gingerich.
Both of these bills demand greater accountability from a department that for many years has been unwilling to enforce even the AWA’s basic animal care standards. Moulton and Gingerich are simply the latest well-publicized glaring examples. If the USDA continues to neglect its responsibilities, then the only way to adequately protect nonhuman animals may simply be for Congress to authorize another federal agency to protect animal welfare.
Nancy Blaney is the Director of Government Affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Lifea project of the Independent Media Institute.