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HOW TO OBTAIN DOCUMENTS FROM GOVERNMENT AGENCIES
One of the most difficult aspects of working on the animal experimentation issue, or any other issue, is finding the facts about the issue you are targeting. People who run laboratories, factory farms, or fur farms are not often willing to share information about their facilities. Therefore we must use other means to obtain this information.
Laws on both the federal and state levels give individuals access to documents that are held by government agencies. These laws can be very useful in obtaining information about anything from laboratories to environmental pollutants.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) governs federal agencies. Theoretically this law gives us access to any document held by any federal agency. Documents can only be withheld for substantial reasons such as national security, invasion of privacy, law enforcement issues, etc. The general form for utilizing this law is in another section of this website.
This law has other limitations. It is relevant only to federal agencies. Simply receiving federal grants, or doing business with the government in some way does NOT make an entity (i.e. a business, college, etc.) subject to the Freedom of Information Act. However, the federal agency that your private entity deals with will be subject to FOIA.
State and local agencies are usually subject to public document laws as well. Virtually every state has such a law, though they do vary. At least two states (California and Virginia) require that their public document laws can only be used by residents of the state. Some states (i.e. Kentucky) have very strict time limits regarding response time by the agency that receives your request. Others do not have such requirements.
Some issues are relevant no matter what type of entity your document request reaches. It is advisable to define a specific time period for your request. In other words, donít ask for all of a certain type of document that an agency maintains. You could be asking for twenty years worth of documents, most of which would be useless to you. Specify a certain time period, often a year or two will be sufficient.
It is also important to know what kind of documents, even down to document names if possible (or form numbers), if possible. This will keep your request down to a manageable size for the agency, and it will also keep your costs down as well. This is a good time to mention that many document laws allow the agency providing the documents to you to charge you for both search and copying costs. Be specific about which documents you request, otherwise you could receive a bill for hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
How do you know what to request? That requires certain knowledge of the field you are investigating. For example, the USDA/APHIS (United States Department of Agriculture/Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service) maintains at least two different kinds of documents regarding laboratories. Each year the laboratory is required to file an annual report which lists the number and species of animals used in experimentation, as well as some categorical types of information. Agency personnel also inspect these labs. The reports that result from these inspections are available (but it is NOT necessary to use FOIA to get inspection reports Ė these are considered public information and require only a written request to the correct USDA office).
Think about what the state or federal agency does with regard to animals. If it regulates hunting, are any statistics kept on the number of animals killed? Think about this from a business point of view. If the entity (i.e. a state college which is also a research facility) actually handles animals then the animals will be tracked, just like business inventory. There will be incoming/outgoing-shipping invoices, health care records, post-mortem reports, breeding reports, etc. Are there any parts of this entity that hold meetings about the animals that are used (such as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee that labs are required to have)? If so, then it is often possible to obtain the minutes of these meetings. There will always be many forms of internal correspondence that can be obtained. The list of different types of documents is almost endless. What you ask for depends primarily on how much you know about the agency, and how much time you have to look through the documents. Donít clog up federal & state agencies with requests for documents that you will never use.
This is a rather basic, thumbnail sketch of how to do document request to various governmental agencies. The next sections of this website contain the generic format for filing document requests in several states, as well as for federal agencies. If the state for which you need to make a request is not currently posted, please let us know, and we will either post it or send it to you by mail or fax. If you have any questions on how to make a request, etc. -- donít hesitate to send us an email.
The document request formats that follow require you to do several things. First, you must add the address the request to the government agency from whom you wish to obtain documents. You must also add your address. The most important part of the letter, the list of documents you are requesting, must also be added. Then sign the request, and send it on its way.
Sample Request Form for the US Government
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