AZA News Releases

Public Comment APHIS’ Animal Welfare Act Licensing Requirement Amendments

Docket Number APHIS-2017-0062 Regulatory Analysis and Development PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8
4700 River Road, Unit 118
Riverdale, MD 20737-1238

RE: Docket No. APHIS-2017-0062; Animal Welfare: Amendments to Licensing Provisions

On behalf of the accredited zoo and aquarium members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), I am writing in response to the recent request for comments on APHIS’ proposal to amend the licensing requirements under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to “promote compliance, reduce licensing fees, and strengthen existing safeguards that prevent individuals and businesses who have a history of non-compliance from obtaining a license or working with regulated animals.”

Founded in 1924, AZA is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation. AZA's accredited aquariums, nature centers, science centers and zoos annually host more than 200 million visitors, collectively generate more than $22 billion in annual economic activity, and support more than 208,000 jobs across the country. In 2017, AZA-accredited facilities spent $220 million on field conservation in 128 countries benefiting 863 species and subspecies. Within those 863 species and subspecies, 281 are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Over 230 zoos and aquariums have met AZA’s strict accreditation standards to become members of the Association. AZA accreditation involves a thorough review and inspection process which examines all aspects of an institution’s operation, including the animal collection, veterinary care, physical facilities, quarantine procedures, safety, security, finance, staff, governing authority, support organization, education programs, conservation and research.

We commend USDA for examining new processes and protocols for increased animal welfare protections, however, we do not believe these proposed actions are the correct ones to pursue in order to address those facilities that are consistently AWA non-compliant. We believe that unless specific procedures and protocols are succinctly defined and justified by the agency, they will become more cumbersome, subjective and inexact for AZA members.

AZA does not understand the overall goal or rationale for this proposed rule. In 2018, APHIS reported that over 90% of USDA licensed facilities were in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. Given that the overwhelming majority of licensees are in compliance, we do not understand the need for a complete dismantling of a licensing and inspection process that is relatively effective. This appears to be a case of creating an untested system in order to address a comparatively small number of chronic non-compliant facilities with the result that it penalizes the compliant facilities, which includes AZA members. We cannot envision how this proposal will improve on the 90%+ compliance figure without significantly impacting AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.

In addition, we do not see the benefits of this proposal to either APHIS or to the overwhelming majority of licensees. AZA believes that unless the goals, objectives and intentions of this proposed rule are more fully defined and focused, the provisions of this proposed rule will add new avenues for legal and public relations pressures, and other delaying tactics each time a new license needs to be issued to an AZA facility.

If the goal of USDA is to bring chronic AWA offenders into compliance (or shut them down), then we recommend that the agency develop mechanisms and procedures for repeat, persistent non-compliant facilities. These mechanisms and procedures should be in addition to the existing licensing system, not discarding the current system. AZA firmly believes that the current Risk-Based Inspection System (RBIS) is working, and AWA inspections suffer most from a lack of financial and training resources for inspectors, inconsistent inspections, and the legal inability for USDA to shut down those few facilities that are consistently cited for animal abuse and/or significant AWA infractions.

Moreover, AZA has serious concerns with the following provision of the proposed rule:

Proposed Section 2.1(b)(1) “…Licenses are not valid upon change of ownership, location, activities, or animals, and a new license must be obtained. A licensee shall notify Animal Care no fewer than 90 days, and obtain a new license before any (emphasis added) change in the name, address, management, substantial control or ownership of his business or operation, locations, activities, and number or type of animal. Any person who is subject to the regulations in this subchapter and who intends to exhibit any animal at any location other than the person’s approved site must provide that information on their application form…and submit written itineraries.

AZA Comments: First, these are overly broad, arbitrary and undefined provisions that could be subjectively interpreted by the agency or openly challenged in the courts. Second, while AZA does see some merit to a 3-year license renewal under specific conditions, we are concerned with some of the associated provisions included in the proposed rule—e.g., Proposed Section 2.1(b)(1). While we understand the need to update (and possibly re-license) those facilities that have undergone changes in name, ownership and physical location, we do have very significant concerns with the provisions regarding changes in animal type or number. We urge that this particular provision be deleted. The number and type of animals at AZA facilities change frequently through revisions and modifications in public display philosophies, conservation breeding initiatives, rescuing animals as a result of natural disasters and rescue/rehabilitation/confiscation activities. It appears both unnecessary and overly burdensome for regulated facilities to obtain new licenses each time there are changes in the “activities, and the type or number of animals in their collections.”

If this provision is retained in the final rule, at a minimum, further clarification is critical to determine what type of “activities” would trigger this provision. Although section (b)(2)(i) states “licenses authorize increments of 50 animals on hand at any single point in time during the licensure”, we do not understand this provision. There are a number of different ways that provision could be interpreted. For example, would a new license be required if an institution possessing a license for 280 animals accepts 30 animals which were displaced due to a natural disaster at another institution. This change is less than 50 animals; however, the institution would now possess 310 animals. Since the licenses are administered based upon increments of 50, AZA believes that the institution would now need to obtain a license to possess 300 – 350 animals. Also, given the increased frequency of natural disasters, we strongly recommend the addition of an emergency exemption to both the 90-day notification and prior license requirements.

AZA is also concerned that this provision would significantly impact AZA members that are involved in outreach education programs outside of their facilities. These facilities generally do not have itineraries or a list of specific animals to be used in outreach programs well in advance of proposed activities as required by this provision. We are again unclear as to what problem this specific provision is intended to address.

AZA would like to raise two additional concerns:

  1. AZA believes there are segments of the animal “industry” that should be subject to USDA licensure and regulation…namely those entities that hold animals, but are not presently subject to any federal agency oversight. Under the AWA, “the term ‘exhibitor’ means any person (public or private) exhibiting any animals, which were purchased in commerce or the intended distribution of which affects commerce, to the public for compensation, as determined by the Secretary….” Whether they are called “sanctuaries” or “hobbyists” or “private collectors,” it appears that these public/private entities use AWA-covered animals (in particular carnivores and non-human primates) for purposes that affect commerce or will affect commerce for compensation (which is defined by USDA as “e.g. prizes, stipends, products or publicity that directly benefits that person’s business, including donations”) and that presently there is no Federal licensing or regulatory oversight. We believe this is problematic from both an animal welfare and public safety perspective. We strongly encourage APHIS to more closely examine these unlicensed and unregulated facilities. This fully aligns with Goal 2, Objective A of the USDA Animal Care Strategic Plan 2016-2020 which states that one of USDA’s aims is to “Issue guidance and policies aimed at reaching persons conducting unlicensed, regulated activities” and;
  1. AZA finds the agency’s removal of “Monday – Friday” in the definition of “business hours” to be very troubling. While the intent is spelled out in the preamble to account for those facilities that may be more accessible to inspections on the weekends, this also could mean that USDA would have the authority to inspect AZA facilities on the weekend. This is not acceptable since AZA facility staffing on the weekend can be significantly lighter and in many cases, the staff that would traditionally accompany the inspector during the inspection are generally not at work.  We urge USDA to remove this proposed definitional change or add more clarification language in the regulation itself.

In conclusion, if APHIS’ true desire is to focus on the chronic AWA offenders (“strengthen existing safeguards that prevent individuals and businesses who have a history of non-compliance from obtaining a license or working with regulated animals”), then we strongly suggest that USDA use the 3-year license re-issuance guidelines on these offenders and continue to regulate AWA compliant facilities under the current RBIS/license renewal structure. If the agency decides to go with a universal 3-year license re-issuance protocol, then we strongly believe that significant changes in the underlying provisions of the proposed rule need to be re-addressed. In addition, AZA would encourage the agency and Congress to continue to look at ways to increase the minimum animal welfare standards that are currently enrolled under the AWA. AZA stands ready to work with USDA on this proposal. 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this very important matter.


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