KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An online tool has disappeared for people to find out whether they are buying puppies from humane breeders or callous operators of "puppy mills."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday it would return some animal welfare reports to public view online, but those reports deal with federal research facilities — not commercial pet breeders.

The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/2lVNCV7 ) that more than 800 breeders in Missouri sell more than 100,000 dogs each year from the state.

The industry contends that removing the online reports protects breeders from being tarred by a few sloppy operations. But animal welfare groups say the loss of the reports leaves consumers and some state regulators in the dark about how dogs are treated.

"We've cautioned people when they go to buy a dog from a breeder to check on the conditions of the seller," said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "That just got much harder."

For years, the federal reports could be found within a few minutes on the web. Those records remain public documents, but getting them now requires a Freedom of Information Act request that can take months. Inspections from the Missouri Department of Agriculture can be had by request more quickly, although they're not listed online.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said it removed the inspections from its website because "the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy." The agency, which compiles the reports, says the change was in the works before President Donald Trump's administration. It blamed litigation for the move.

Hank Grosenbacher, president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, said the online posting of the reports mostly served to give the Humane Society something to sensationalize. He suggested buyers ask the breeder for the inspection report, and go elsewhere to buy their animal if the breeder refuses to provide it.

Critics say move will make it harder for states to enforce various laws that make pet sales contingent on clean inspection reports.

"For what? So a puppy mill operator can get some privacy? That's nuts," said John Goodwin, who heads the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. "This information should be accessible so that people can understand where the animals come from and how they're being treated."

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com