In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) — the agency responsible for enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) — implemented its infamous “teaching moments” program. Instead of being written up in an inspection report for failing to comply with minimum animal welfare regulations, facilities that violate the law would simply be asked to do better – gladly done with brown sugar on top. When animals such as bear cubs, monkeys, and dogs suffered as a result of AWA violations, their abusers got off scot-free. Fortunately, the use of “learning moments” has come to an end. This is why PETA is happy to see that it has settled down.
What types of violations were considered ‘teaching moments’?
The USDA began using “learning opportunities” to document violations that its inspectors interpreted as minor violations, in an effort to “work together” with licensees and registrants and reconcile them before including a citation on their inspection reports.
“Minor” violations that could be registered as a “learning moment” had to meet the following criteria:
- Did not adversely affect animal welfare
- It was unlikely to become serious, direct, critical or repeatedly non-compliant in a short period of time
- Represented something the facility wanted and was able to correct quickly
- Not previously recorded as a learning opportunity or cited in an inspection report
However, some serious violations were written off by inspectors as “teaching moments” rather than giving offenders the citations they deserved, lacking the animals that inspectors are supposed to protect. Now that the “teaching moments” system has ended, exploiters will be sued for their mistreatment of animals, which is the only way they can be held accountable as citations are the basis for tougher enforcement actions such as warnings, fines, penalties, administrative lawsuits , lawsuits and even animal seizures or suspension or revocation of licenses.
For whom have ‘learning moments’ failed?
The use of “learning moments” gave animal exploiters a pass even if they did not meet minimum animal welfare requirements, and some inspectors erroneously treated serious animal welfare violations as nothing more than learning opportunities. Incidents that have been written off as “learning opportunities” but should have been included in an inspection report include the following.
- Oswald’s Bear Ranch transported three bear cubs in a sealed plastic carrier bag. A USDA inspector issued a “teaching moment” for inadequate ventilation on April 18.
Why this should have been a quote: The USDA’s guidelines for its inspectors state that any non-compliance that adversely affects animal health and welfare must be noted in an inspection report, and that lack of ventilation must be cited as an example of something that warrants a citation. Without proper ventilation, the cubs were at risk of not getting enough oxygen, which would have resulted in respiratory acidosis and increased intracranial pressure — a condition that can cause permanent neurological damage or even death. Also, ‘learning opportunities’ were not allowed to be given to facilities with poor compliance data. At the time of this issue, Oswald’s had agreed to pay $2,400 just four months earlier to settle alleged violations of the AWA.
- SeaQuest failed to protect animals and the public – multiple incidents were reported of an animal biting or scratching guests during encounters. Since then, the same type of offense has been cited on 10 inspection reports, many of which are noted as repeated, critical violations.
Why this should have been a quote: It was clear that this was a serious problem as the incidents had occurred in an interactive petting zoo – and then it was unlikely that anything would be fixed any time soon.
- Oswald’s Bear Ranch failed (again!) to provide young cubs with adequate nutritional value. At the time of inspection on June 11, 2019, the facility’s owners had bottle-fed nearly 90 cubs (all of whom were vulnerable and immunocompromised from having been prematurely removed from their mothers) over the span of more than two decades and were apparently not providing the animals with an adequate diet — and still the USDA didn’t name them for this failure. Several young cubs have died during Oswald’s watch, including at least two cubs in 2021.
Why this should have been a quote: “Teachable moments” can’t affect animal welfare – and not providing cubs with good food definitely falls within this domain.
- Banana Derby and Pompeyo Family Dogs failed to give dogs enough space. Banana Derby exhibitor Philip Dolci received a “learning moment” on July 15, 2019 and Pompeyo Family Dogs got one on Jan 14, 2020 – both because they didn’t give dogs the minimum floor space needed when they weren’t forced to travel.
Why this should have been a quote: Insufficient space negatively affects animal health and welfare and can lead to psychological distress and physical suffering, making these serious apparent violations of animal welfare regulations.
- Weber State University, Wayne State University and Experimur failed to properly monitor experiments that caused animals pain and suffering. Additionally, Experimur’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) failed to ensure that an experimental protocol was categorized into the correct pain category. Because the IACUC classified the protocol as causing less pain and suffering than it actually did, the investigator did not have to look for alternatives.
Why this should have been a quote: In all three cases, the institutions’ monitoring committees abandoned animals. These failures are particularly worrisome because IACUCs are intended to be animals’ last line of defense. The USDA itself views IACUC violations as seriously problematic, as such failures disrupt the system of monitoring the use of animals in experiments.
No More Learning Curve: Increase Pressure on Oswald’s Bear Farm to Send Animals to Reputable Sanctuaries
In the wild, bear cubs spend their time playing, exploring, and socializing, but at Oswald’s Bear Ranch they are used for photo ops and treated by the public – highly disruptive practices that often lead to long-term psychological and physical problems for the cubs. Bears at Oswald suffered much at the hands of exploiters and unwitting tourists who paid to feed cubs snatched from their mothers by profit-hungry breeders. The roadside zoo got several “teachable moments” and quotes, but the only way it can show it has really learned its lesson is by transferring the bears to a reputable sanctuary.