Some Arizona pet stores and a government transparency activist are going to great lengths to publish animal welfare records that were once readily available online.
The decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month to purge its online database of inspection reports and other documents has left people within the Arizona pet industry scrambling to find ways to reassure customers that their animals come from reputable breeders.
Companion Pets Inc., which owns five pet stores in Arizona under the names Puppies ‘N Love and Animal Kingdom, said it was in the process of digitizing two years’ worth of paper-based inspection reports from all of its breeders. Spokeswoman Linda Nofer said the company hoped to post the records to its website by the end of this week.
“We take this very seriously,” Nofer said. “This industry has to be transparent.”
Russ Kick, a Tucson-based government transparency activist, is trying to recreate as much of the USDA database as possible. Kick said he has already published more than 10,000 of the purged inspection reports to his own website, thememoryhole2.org, and has been gathering more documents from animal rights activists by the day.
“Even with the thousands of files that are up there, it’s a fraction of what was up there,” he said Monday.
Amid heavy criticism, the USDA re-posted a handful of records to its website last week. However, the re-posted documents make up only a tiny sliver of the trove that had existed for years: the agency responsible for inspecting roughly 9,000 commercial animal facilities re-posted just 36 pages of inspection reports.
Consumer protections in Arizona’s new puppy mill law rely on the use of the now-defunct database. The law set up mechanisms for consumers to check breeder’s inspection histories on the website, a move to strengthen public confidence in the notion that Arizona pet stores aren’t re-selling dogs from violation-laden puppy mill operations.
“This hurts the industry, unquestionably,” said Nofer of Puppies ‘N Love and Animal Kingdom. “But thankfully not us because you can ask to see those reports and we have them.”
Puppies ‘N Love and Animal Kingdom pet stores keep two years of paper records on all of their breeders, Nofer said. The stores have maintained this records policy since 2009, she said.
Customers can ask to see the records in every store and are sent copies after a purchase, Nofer said.
“People want to know where you get your dogs from. They want to know who’s breeding your puppies. They want to make sure they don't have violations on their record. They want to make sure that they're responsible. That they're ethical,” she said.
However, now that the USDA website is down, pet stores are unable to quickly obtain new inspection reports for their breeders and must rely on the breeders themselves to supply the documents.
"The stores cannot know if the breeder has supplied all inspection reports," said Kellye Pinkleton, the director of the Arizona branch of the Humane Society of the United States. "A breeder may give two inspection reports to a store owner and hold one back with a violation. The pet store wouldn't know."
Without the publicly accessible database, the system lacks checks and balances and relies on a degree of self-reporting, she said. It's an idea that doesn't sit well with transparency activists like Kick.
“[Viewing inspection reports from the store] has some value, but it’s not the same as being able to go and pull them up for yourself,” he said.
Kick said he will continue to aggregate USDA records as a hobby, along with a host of other hard-to-get government documents. He’s collecting donations in hopes of spending more time on the project.
Feb. 21 update: This story was updated with comments with Kellye Pinkleton, the Arizona director of the Humane Society of the United States.
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