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May 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

Uniting to Take Down Animal Fighting

I was delighted this week to see that a group of middle schoolers from my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., was honored for the anti-dogfighting rap song they entered in The Humane Society of the United States’ Hip Hop for Hounds contest. The young rappers are part of the Erie County SPCA’s innovative Teaching Love and Compassion (TLC) program, and they were asked to perform their song at a meeting of Erie County legislators and the Buffalo School Board. 

184x263_ny_rap_kids_2 The rap they created, “Unite,” is a testament to the power of young people to spread the message of compassion, and the interconnectivity between how we treat animals and how we treat other members of our communities. You can listen to the song, or watch them perform it.

In fact, rallying cries against animal fighting are being sung not only at county councils and school boards, but also in the halls of state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Just look at what has happened in the first five months of 2008.

The Farm Bill passed by Congress includes a provision that puts more teeth into the federal law to combat dogfighting and cockfighting. It upgrades the penalties from three years to five years in prison, and bans the training and possession of fighting animals nationwide.

Eight states have enacted laws this year to crack down on animal fighting. Idaho and Wyoming made dogfighting a felony, the last two states to do so. Virginia and Wyoming made cockfighting a felony, and Virginia also authorized the use of racketeering charges to break up dogfighting rings. Iowa, Maryland, and Oregon toughened the penalties for the spectators who finance dogfights. Georgia closed its loophole that allowed people to possess fighting dogs, and Mississippi continued its prohibition on hog-dog fighting.

Lawmakers in three other states have passed bills that just await the governor’s signature. The Louisiana and Minnesota laws will upgrade penalties for attending dogfights, and the New Hampshire law will allow the confiscation of fighting animals and prevent animal fighters from owning animals in the future.

Five other bills have passed one chamber of their respective state legislatures, and some of them could become law this year if they are approved by the other body. Bills in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, and New York would upgrade the statutes dealing with spectators at dogfights, and a bill in Ohio which passed the House this week would make cockfighting a felony.

Every single one of these new laws brings us one big step closer to eradicating the dogfighting and cockfighting industries, and that goal cannot be achieved too soon. The Humane Society Legislative Fund will continue its march in the halls and corridors—from Augusta to Honolulu, from Juneau to Tallahassee—until we rid all of our communities of this terrible scourge.

The support of America’s young people is crucial for success. As the Buffalo students put it: “Don’t fight. Unite. 'Cause we gotta make it right.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Signs of Progress in Annapolis

Last week, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill that will help animal shelters in the Free State treat dogs and cats more humanely. Maryland’s previous law gave shelters access to the drugs used to euthanize animals, but not the drugs needed to sedate animals prior to euthanasia. The federal government yanked the licenses for shelters to obtain the sedatives last year, which left some animals seizing and partially awake during painful deaths, and made the process more dangerous for shelter workers.

Pitbull_3 Delegate Jon Cardin (D-Baltimore County) introduced emergency legislation to close this loophole in state law, and it flew through both the House and the Senate unanimously. Cardin and O’Malley were joined at the bill signing ceremony by Nancy Perry and Tami Santelli of The Humane Society of the United States, along with other Maryland animal advocates who worked toward the passage of this much-needed policy change.

As Delegate Cardin said, “I am pleased that Maryland lawmakers acted so quickly to pass this critical legislation. Granting Maryland animal shelters access to the drugs they need to safely and humanely euthanize animals is simply a matter of common sense and decency.”

When pet overpopulation forces animal shelters into the tragic situation of euthanizing animals, the least we can do is ensure that it is done humanely. It’s a credit to Maryland legislators that they swung into action to address this serious deficiency in the state's animal care laws.

It was also gratifying to see Governor O’Malley stand up for animals, since he has largely been a disappointment to animal advocates since he took office in 2007.

For one thing, he missed the opportunity to champion legislation that would have significantly toughened Maryland's anti-dogfighting law, providing felony penalties for spectators who fuel the dogfighting industry. These are the people who keep this awful industry alive, and they should be classified as felons in Maryland just as they are in 22 other states. Rather than lead, though, the governor was silent.

In the end, he did sign a watered-down version of the bill to upgrade the penalties for attending a dogfight from 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine—less than the punishment for stealing cable television, playing a game of craps, or racing a horse under a false name—to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. It's a step above a slap on the wrist, but still just a misdemeanor.

Bear_2 It was the governor's action, rather than his inaction, however, which most angered animal advocates last year, when O’Malley sanctioned the trophy hunting of bears. Maryland has only a few hundred bears living in the state, after they recovered from the brink of extinction decades ago. The governor allowed 51 of these rare creatures to be killed for their heads and hides in the 2007 trophy hunt, ignoring the many available methods of solving bear conflicts humanely.

Let’s hope the signing of the animal shelter bill is a portent of a more humane and forward-looking O’Malley Administration. There will be further public policy reforms for animals needed during next year’s legislative session in Annapolis. And a much more urgent course correction is needed before this fall when the trophy hunters once again set out into Maryland’s forests for their bearskin rugs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Farm Bill is a Boon to Animal Protection

It was a hectic week in Congress leading up to the Memorial Day recess. The House voted 316 to 108 and the Senate voted 82 to 13 this week to override President Bush’s veto of the massive Farm Bill.  The bill was not without its controversy, and there was even an inadvertent error in omitting 34 pages of the bill, which the Congress will have to remedy after the break ends.

But it was a huge week for animals, without much fanfare. Tucked away in the enormous Farm Bill, which sets agricultural policy for the next five years, are three of the most important animal welfare reforms that Congress is likely to pass this year. They now become law, and usher in major changes for animal protection.

Pit_bull_2 One provision strengthens the federal law against dogfighting and cockfighting, and builds on the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act which was enacted last year. The new measure upgrades the federal penalties for animal fighting from three years to five years in prison. Importantly, it makes it a federal felony to possess and train fighting animals, and allows federal prosecutions of animal fighting rings regardless of whether those particular animals moved in interstate commerce.

It’s essentially a national ban on animal fighting and it holds the cast of characters accountable who abuse these animals and turn them into  murderous fighting machines. It brings us one step closer to eradicating dogfighting and cockfighting in America, and that’s a goal that can’t be achieved soon enough. Thanks to Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Representatives Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) who introduced and pushed for these provisions.

Another measure will crack down on foreign puppy mills by barring the import of young, unweaned puppies for commercial sale at pet stores and over the Internet. Thousands of young puppies are treated like a cash crop in China, Russia, Mexico, and other countries, where they are raised in filthy cages, stacked on top of each other, with no socialization or human interaction. They endure harsh, long-distance, air transport to the United States, exposed to extreme temperatures and often freezing to death in airplane cargo holds or arriving sick and diseased.

There are plenty of dogs available in the United States—with nearly four million pets euthanized each year because there are not enough homes for them all, we don't need puppy millers adding to this tragic overpopulation.  The new law stops the import of puppies younger than six months old, and will curb the worst abuses in this emerging industry. It was introduced and pushed over the finish line by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Representatives Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), and Terry Everett (R-Ala.), and we will next work to introduce further legislation to protect dogs in puppy mills here in the United States. 

Animal_research And finally, the Farm Bill upgrades penalties for violations of the Animal Welfare Act—which haven’t changed in more than twenty years—by quadrupling the potential fine from $2,500 to $10,000. Research laboratories, puppy mills, circuses, zoos, and other industries that use animals have largely been asked to self-regulate because enforcement is minimal. Now, the penalties will provide a more meaningful deterrent against abuse, and will no longer be considered just a cost of doing business. Thanks to Representatives Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) for advancing this reform to put teeth in our nation’s cornerstone animal protection statute.

It may not seem obvious at first that the Farm Bill would be such an important vehicle for animal protection. But because the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and other humane treatment laws, the Farm Bill is a unique opportunity to improve our nation’s animal protection policies and toughen the penalties for those who engage in cruelty and abuse. In fact, it was the 2002 Farm Bill that closed a loophole in the federal animal fighting law and stopped the interstate and foreign shipment of birds for cockfighting, including slamming the door shut on American cockfighters who bring birds to and from countries and territories where cockfighting is still legal.

We were disappointed that House and Senate negotiators dumped a provision to ban Class B dealers—who traffic in random-source dogs and cats, including stolen pets, and sell them to research—and also that the members of the Agriculture Committee did not address some of the fundamental problems with industrialized agriculture.  But there's no question that we picked up some major gains for animals in this legislation.  And when you add in the Bush Administration's actions during the past week to list polar bears as a "threatened" species (putting a stop to the import of sport-hunted polar bears by American trophy hunters) and to close a loophole in the law that allows some "downer" cows to be slaughtered for human consumption, it was quite a week in policy making for animals.

We are grateful to the Agriculture Committee leaders—House Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Ranking Member Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Senate Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)—for making animal welfare part of the Farm Bill agenda. And we extend  a special thanks to the Judiciary Committee leaders, House Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Senate Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for their tremendous assistance in assuring that the upgrade of the animal fighting law was as strong and sweeping as it is.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oregon Animal Advocates Come Through

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama split primary wins in Kentucky and Oregon last night, but their contest was not the only one with national implications. Democratic voters in those two states also chose their party’s candidates for U.S. Senate, setting the stage for competitive races against Republican incumbents this November.

In Kentucky, wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford easily won the right to challenge U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the general election. And Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley edged out liberal activist Steve Novick for a spot on the ballot against U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, the lone Republican senator on the west coast.

Merkley_3 The Humane Society Legislative Fund had endorsed Merkley in the primary, and it was one of only two Senate primaries we’ve waded into so far in 2008. (The other is the reelection of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg who faces a primary challenge on June 3.)

As House Speaker, Merkley has been an active supporter of path-breaking animal protection laws in Oregon. His leadership at the state level has resulted in the first legislative ban on cruel confinement of breeding pigs in tiny gestation crates on industrial factory farms, and an upgrade of the anti-dogfighting law in the wake of the Michael Vick case which toughened the penalties for the bloodthirsty psychopaths who attend dogfights and finance the criminal enterprise with their admission fees and gambling wagers. 

Animal welfare advocates rallied for Merkley in Oregon, and HSLF alerted thousands of Democratic voters in Oregon that Merkley was the choice for animal protection. With 85 percent of the votes counted last night, Merkley led Novick by 45 percent to 41 percent, a margin of about 18,500 votes. We congratulate Jeff Merkley on his primary victory, and extend our thanks to Oregon’s animal advocates who made a difference in this tight race.

In primary elections, a small number of voters typically exert enormous influence on the outcomes. Animal advocates should continue to watch these primary battles closely, and continue to put the humane treatment of animals on the political map.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Get Downers Out

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will close a gaping loophole in its regulation on processing sick and crippled cows for human consumption.

Downed cow pushed with forklift I’ve written here on the blog about The Humane Society of the United States’ slaughter plant investigation that led to the largest meat recall in American history. And the Humane Society Legislative Fund had rallied thousands of advocates for the cause of downed animal protection at our Party Animals events last month. Today’s news is a welcome move by USDA, even if long overdue, and we are grateful to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer for closing the loophole that has allowed downed animals to enter the food supply.

The agency still needs to promulgate the rule, and we hope it will do so immediately. A bright-line ban on processing downed cattle was in place from January 2004 to July 2007, until it was inexplicably weakened last year. The restoration and proper enforcement of that ban cannot come soon enough, and the agency should not drag its feet in doing so.

Further policy reforms are still needed, which the USDA or Congress can implement. The rule should include not just downed animals at the point of slaughter, but also at auctions and markets where HSUS investigators found animals, one after another, abandoned in parking lots and filthy pens to suffer for endless hours. These creatures should receive veterinary care or be humanely euthanized without delay. And the prohibition should apply not only to cattle, but also to pigs and other livestock who deserve the same protections from abuse when they cannot stand or walk on their own. The Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act would achieve these added protections, if they are absent from USDA’s action.

We also need more meaningful penalties for facilities that slaughter downed animals, and not just a temporary shuttering of the plant for an hour or two before it resumes business as usual. And we need basic animal welfare standards for food purchased through the National School Lunch Program and other federal programs, to raise the bar in the marketplace when our tax dollars are at work and our children are at risk.

A collection of bills in Congress—including the Downed Animal Enforcement Act, the Food Safety Recall Information Act, and the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act—are all needed to provide greater protections for animals and consumers. Lawmakers and advocates should take the USDA announcement as a welcome step forward, but keep pushing for measurable and critical advances.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Conservation Legislation: From Cats to Cranes

Like a tiger stalking its prey through the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, good legislation can quietly sneak up on you.

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives is slated to pass several important conservation bills under suspension of the rules. For those unfamiliar with the Byzantine procedures of the House, The Washington Post describes suspension as “a rules gambit used to expeditiously give relatively uncontroversial legislation an up-or-down vote, with limited floor debate, no amendments and two-thirds support of lawmakers present required for passage.”

Coral reef and fish, credit James Watt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Among the measures likely to pass today are two resolutions: H.Con.Res. 300, introduced by Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans, recognizes the necessity for the United States to maintain its significant leadership role in improving the health and promoting the resiliency of coral reef ecosystems. And S.J.Res. 17, by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), vice chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, directs the United States to initiate international discussions to negotiate an agreement for managing migratory and transboundary fish stocks in the Arctic Ocean.

Also on the calendar are two important policies to protect rare species of mammals and birds around the world. H.R. 1464, the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act, introduced by Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), will provide financial resources for conservation programs to protect rare dog and cat species outside North America. A Senate version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Species such as jaguars, clouded leopards, and African wild dogs are declining drastically due to habitat loss, poaching, disease, and human-wildlife conflict. This conservation funding will be a critical lifeline for rare dogs and cats ranging from the Ethiopian wolf to the Iberian lynx.

H.R. 1771, the Crane Conservation Act, by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), will do the same for imperiled crane populations both here at home and across the globe. A Senate version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Cranes are the most endangered family of birds in the world, victims of pesticide, power lines, human encroachment, and even wars. Eleven of 15 species are at risk of extinction, and the North American whooping crane is the rarest of all cranes.

Two whooping cranes, credit Joel Trick, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceAs Congresswoman Baldwin said, “Wisconsin has been a world leader in protecting this endangered family of birds. With federal support, the work done at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo can inspire and instruct conservationists at home and abroad in their efforts to protect this magnificent species.”

The Multinational Species Conservation Fund already includes grant programs to help imperiled species—including Asian and African elephants, great apes, marine turtles, and rhinoceroses and tigers. Now, two separate accounts will be added to the fund specifically to assist cranes and rare dogs and cats.

Some reforms are so evident that there really is not a debate in society about the right course of action. Who could possibly think that Cape hunting dogs or black crowned cranes do not deserve a place on our planet, or jaguars or snow leopards for that matter? We hope today that the House approves these measures, and that Senate action follows swiftly. These are major advances in the waiting, and I extend our thanks to Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Subcommittee Chairwoman Bordallo, who have made passage of these measures a priority when the species need our help the most.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Polar Bears Listed as Threatened, but Still on Thin Ice

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced yesterday that the polar bear would be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, ending months of speculation over the fate of this proposed listing. But the fate of the polar bear remains uncertain, as we don’t know whether the threatened status will have any impact on oil and gas drilling in the polar bear’s habitat, or what federal policies and action plans will be undertaken to help these beleaguered creatures recover.

13We do know that the polar bear is the first species to be granted protection under the Endangered Species Act due to the effects of global warming, and this potential lifeline can’t come soon enough. Their habitat is shrinking and ice floes are vanishing. Scientists report that the bears’ body weights are declining and they are having trouble hunting for food. Anyone who saw the “Planet Earth” series on BBC or Discovery Channel, and watched a starving polar bear curl up to die because he couldn’t kill a walrus, knows exactly what these animals are facing.

One benefit for polar bears which will take place immediately, however, is that wealthy American trophy hunters will no longer be allowed to import sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 originally barred such imports—just as it still prohibits the import of parts from whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. But in 1994, trophy hunting groups led by Safari Club International punched a loophole through the law, opening the American border to more than 800 heads and hides of polar bears that have been imported since that time.

The United States does not allow sport hunting of polar bears in Alaska, so trophy hunters skirt the spirit of American conservation law by killing polar bears abroad. The Safari Club International gives out a “Bears of the World” hunting achievement award to individuals who shoot four of the eight species of bears in the world, and that awards program drives competitive killing of polar bears. Most of the trophy hunters who chase these animals in the Arctic in a head-hunting exercise are Americans, because they know they can bring the spoils of the hunt home with them for the purposes of self-aggrandizement and bragging rights.

Congress has been working to restore the longstanding ban on polar bear imports, and The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund have aggressively fought for passage of the Polar Bear Protection Act, H.R. 2327 and S. 1406, introduced by Representatives Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), and Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Last year, thanks to Senator Reed’s leadership, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation to stop the Department of Interior from issuing polar bear trophy import permits. Unfortunately, the House rejected a similar provision, and the language was not included in the final Omnibus Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2008.

PolarbearbigThe threatened listing for polar bears achieves the same policy goal we have been seeking on trophy imports, but this victory for bears may be temporary. If the species recovers, there will still be a gaping loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows polar bear imports to resume. And the Safari Club has already fired a shot across the bow signaling its desire to “to reinstate the ability to import trophies” under federal law.

The trophy hunters may claim there is some conservation or economic value in killing polar bears, but their logic is Orwellian at best. You can’t save the polar bears by killing them. This is high-priced commercial hunting, and when an American trophy hunter spends $30,000 or more to shoot a polar bear, the hefty fees prompt over-exploitation of already vulnerable populations of bears. In 2005, the Nunavut territory of Canada increased hunting quotas by 29 percent, despite concerns expressed by polar bear researchers that the increase in take could be harmful to the population.

Moreover, we have seen no evidence that money charged for polar bear hunting permits is essential to local communities or wildlife conservation. An August 2005 article in the Nunatsiaq News, a Nunavut newspaper, concluded that “most of the spoils never reach Inuit hands, and when they do, those earnings vary substantially from community to community.” The funds are pocketed by commercial outfitters, and spent on transportation, hunting gear, and other incidentals—not spent on conservation.

The bears are in trouble. They are the 21st Century’s canaries in the mineshaft. Shooting them for a living room trophy mount as they struggle to survive in a rapidly changing environment is just selfish and wrong.  The excessive commercial killing of polar bears is only one cause of mortality in the larger constellation of threats they are facing, but it's one course correction we can make right now.

The threatened listing for polar bears makes it even more urgent that we do everything we can to ensure their survival.  While we wrestle with the larger problems of global warming and habitat protection, now is the time to tell your members of Congress to pass the Polar Bear Protection Act, and make sure the door to trophy imports does not swing open in the future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Talk Back: Questions and Comments

Today I’d like to post a few comments that have come into the blog, and answer a couple questions as well.

In response to the problem of crippled cows at livestock auctions:

The pain and cruelty that these beautiful and sentient beings are forced to endure is so deeply disturbing that it has me in tears for hours. I make my donations, phone calls, letter writing, faxing, and emailing until my fingers are cramped! What else can we do to yield results and action right now? I reside in Connecticut and am so proud that Rep. Christopher Shays is a co-author of the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act. But, we and most importantly, the victims/animals need our help and support ASAP!—Lisa K.

Lisa, thanks for all your work to protect farm animals. We need strong federal policies to protect these creatures from cruelty and abuse. As you said, the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act is an important reform that would set humane standards for the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition and commodity programs. We also need the U.S. Department of Agriculture to close the loophole that allows the slaughter of downed animals, and we need Congress to pass the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act. Keep contacting the USDA and your members of Congress on these important issues. And watch this blog and the HSLF website for updates and actions you can take.

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In response to Oprah’s show on puppy mills:

I believe that this should be against the law, no matter what pet stores are open or not. This is definitely a form of animal cruelty and it’s got to stop. These people should lose their licenses after the first offense of animal cruelty and neglect.—Jennifer R.

Please STOP this cruel behavior. Do something to stop not only the puppy mill activity, but also the core of the problem: the overwhelming desire of people to own these inbred animals. BEGIN advocacy of pound puppies. We have two! They need homes, and these puppy mills would be shut down if demand for them plummeted.—Tamara O.

What ever happened to PAWS, S.1139 and H.R. 2669?—Joanna F.

Joanna, the Pet Animal Welfare Statute (PAWS) legislation had been introduced in the 109th Congress.  It had a favorable subcommittee hearing but did not pass into law during that session, and has not been reintroduced in the 110th Congress.  Federal lawmakers have been taking action on other puppy mill legislation, and the final Farm Bill includes a provision strongly backed by HSLF which bars the import of young puppies from foreign puppy mills for sale in the United States. We expect new legislation to be introduced soon to further crack down on puppy mill abuses.

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In response to the introduction of the Great Ape Protection Act:

I've been fighting as best I could for the past 30+ years to save these laboratory animals. Can you imagine living in a cage for 40 years and the only time you’re out is when they’re performing god-awful experiments on you? As a nation, we are the worst when it comes to animal caring. It sickens me because no matter how hard you try, the animals still suffer.—Carole L.

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And a general inquiry:

Do you have to be a registered voter to participate in activities such as signing petitions and letters to representatives or senators regarding legislation?—Barb

Barb, you do not have to be a registered voter in order to communicate your views to your elected officials. You are a constituent who lives in their state or district, whether you are registered or not, and they need to hear your opinions. That said, it’s important for animal advocates to register to vote and to participate in candidate elections if we want to become a powerful political force and have more influence in the decision-making process. You can follow this link to register.

If you have a question about HSLF, offer a comment through the blog or email your query. I may post it in a future blog.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

NRA is the Poacher's Best Friend

When the NRA walks the halls of the U.S. Congress these days, it may stand for “No Rational Argument.”

Last year, the group tried to use some of its political capital to block legislation toughening the federal penalties for illegal dogfighting and cockfighting. The NRA simply didn’t like the fact that The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund supported the bill, so it chose to align itself with Michael Vick rather than the law enforcement officials who arrested him for financing a dogfighting ring. The legislation it tried to stymie passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly, and was signed into law by President Bush.

Bear_2 Now, in an instant replay worthy of Michael Vick’s highlight reel, the NRA is trying to shoot down legislation that would stop the illegal poaching of bears. First dogfighters and cockfighters, and now poachers. We already know that group defends canned hunters and captive pigeon shooters. What other animal cruelty enthusiasts will the group defend next?

The Bear Protection Act, H.R. 5534, introduced by U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.), would bar the interstate commerce in bear bile and gall bladders. These internal organs are sought by poachers for sale on the lucrative black market for Asian medicines, and even non-medicinal items like aphrodisiacs and hemorrhoid creams.

Poaching is a cruel and wasteful epidemic. Game wardens report finding bear carcasses in the woods with nothing removed but the gall bladder. For every bear legally killed by a hunter in North America, some estimates indicate that at least one other bear is illegally poached by a criminal.

Thirty-four states already ban the sale of bear parts—including major bear hunting states like Alaska—because hunters and wildlife managers long ago decided that wildlife should be used as a public resource, not for private commercial gain. But the patchwork of state regulations makes the enforcement of anti-poaching laws difficult, as the organs from a bear poached in one state could be sold legally in another. And a gall bladder from a black bear looks identical to one from a polar bear or Asiatic bear. There’s no way to tell at the point of sale whether the bear was killed legally or illegally, or whether the bear’s population was endangered or thriving.

The Bear Protection Act would crack down on poaching by establishing a national policy on the sale of bear viscera. It doesn’t have any impact on lawful bear hunting—only bear poaching—but the NRA is actively fighting the legislation. The group has rattled its saber over the bill, and has already strong-armed a couple of its allies—Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Mary Fallin (R-Okla.)—into withdrawing their co-sponsorship.

Why would the NRA defend the interests of poachers, when it has so many other policy issues to worry about? It doesn’t make much sense, unless the group has some members who are not satisfied with conventional bear trophies and bearskin rugs, and instead want to mount a bear’s gall bladder over the mantle.

Bear_3 In an online poll of NRA members last week, 60 percent said the most important policy issue was expanding right-to-carry permits, 26 percent favored opposing semi-automatic bans, and only 14 percent wanted the organization to focus on hunting issues. My guess is that only a handful of NRA members would ask the organization to prioritize the protection of poachers.

Fortunately, there are more reasonable hunting groups that support law enforcement and oppose poaching. The American Hunters and Shooters Association, for example, has endorsed the Bear Protection Act, and the group’s president, Ray Schoenke, testified in Congress in favor of the anti-poaching legislation.

By defending the most abominable practices, the NRA might just shoot itself in the foot. When the group paves the way for poachers, it is certainly using its political capital and adding to a record of disrepute.  Maybe members of Congress will end up seeking alternative voices to defend their Second Amendment interests—not the interests of criminals.

Whether you are a hunter or an animal advocate, contact your members of Congress today and ask them to support the Bear Protection Act. Don’t let the NRA get away with protecting poachers.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Crippled Cows Need Protection at Every Step of their Journey

The Humane Society of the United States yesterday released the next wave of its groundbreaking investigation into rampant mistreatment of sick and crippled cows. Last time, the downed animals were tormented and processed at a California slaughter plant for the National School Lunch Program. But now, there is evidence that animals are too weak to stand up or walk at earlier points in the process: the livestock auctions and half-way stops between farm and slaughter. 

281x144_cow1_2 Since the Hallmark/Westland case broke in January, there have been eight congressional hearings on downed animals and food safety issues, more than 150 million pounds of meat recalled, and two new bills introduced to address the abuses. Now, congressional reaction once again has been swift in response to the problems found at livestock auctions in Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer urging the agency to conduct an industry-wide investigation into the animal cruelty at auctions and stockyards. “This is further evidence that oversight to ensure the humane treatment of animals destined for our food supply is inadequate,” she said. “Food animals should never be subject to the kind of horrible acts as witnessed in these videos and reported by concerned citizens.” Sen. Feinstein previously introduced legislation to provide more meaningful penalties for facilities that slaughter downed animals.

The chairwoman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., also weighed in strongly. “Given the continued revelations about the abuse of downer cows—this time in our livestock auctions and stockyards—it is clear that this is a systemic problem. Unfortunately, preventing animal cruelty, and preventing animals at greater risk for food-borne illnesses from entering the food supply, does not appear to be a USDA priority.” Rep. DeLauro is the author of the Food Safety Recall Information Act, which would further address the problems highlighted by the downed animal investigation and beef recall.

And the co-author of the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., called for further protections for farm animals. “The humane treatment of animals speaks to our nation’s core values, and this cruelty reflects poorly on our country as a whole,” he said. “Our government can have a tremendous impact in encouraging improved treatment of animals by requiring producers to meet basic federal animal welfare requirements.”

The Humane Society Legislative Fund is grateful to these legislative leaders for speaking out. In fact, it’s not the first time lawmakers have asked USDA to look into this very problem. In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress directed the USDA to investigate the question of downed animals at livestock auctions and markets—including the scope of problems, the causes, and the resulting cruel treatment of animals—and to follow up with “regulations to provide for the humane treatment, handling, and disposition of nonambulatory livestock by stockyards, market agencies, and dealers.”

Now that Congress is wrapping up another Farm Bill six years later, further action is needed to address these cruelties that have come to light. While the USDA has a presence at slaughter plants, no one is watching or taking responsibility for the animals at auctions before they are sent to slaughter. These animals fall into regulatory limbo, and we need to do better as a country to protect animal welfare and food safety.

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