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May 2009

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wildlife Pays the Interest on Credit Card Reform

President Obama last week signed a much-discussed credit card reform bill, after Congress attached an utterly nongermane provision having more to do with reloading than refinancing. An amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) forces a reckless about-face on a Reagan-era rule which had, for a quarter-century, barred national park visitors from carrying loaded weapons. The original policy was enacted in 1983 as a way to combat poaching in these few remaining safe havens for wildlife, where rangers are few, miles of roads and trails are many, and animals are accustomed to the presence of people.

American Buffalo credit Kym Perry/SXC The rhetoric favoring the guns-in-parks amendment often verged on the absurd, and Erich Pratt, director of communications at Gun Owners of America, offered the most startling of arguments: “People have been raped, murdered, attacked by wild animals,” Pratt told Congressional Quarterly. “Whether you’re in national parks or Washington, D.C., it’s just not right to tell people that you can’t protect yourself and we will punish you if you try to.”

The data show that national parks are some of the safest places in the United States. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there were 1.65 violent crimes per 100,000 national park visitors in 2006, compared to 473.5 victims per 100,000 citizens that same year. In other words, you’re about 287 times more likely to be murdered, raped, robbed, or assaulted if you’re outside a national park. 

And what about those vicious wild animal attacks? Hunter and author Ted Kerasote, who lives in Wyoming within Grand Teton National Park, suggests that “pepper spray is a far better deterrent than a .44 magnum, especially in the hands of the inexperienced. I’ve now used it to turn a charging moose, dissuade a cantankerous bison and send a bear scurrying. The animals had a coughing fit, and I a scare, a far better outcome than guns often produce.”

In fact, the new rule is likely to make national park visitors less safe around wildlife. Packing heat could give some people a false sense of security and make them more likely to approach bison, elk, moose, and grizzly bears, rather than keep a safe distance which is better for both people and animals. Elk credit Brian Lary/SXC

But the most certain outcome of this congressional action is that it will promote poaching. The National Park Service warned in its fiscal 2006 budget submission to Congress that “the poaching of wildlife from national parks has been steadily increasing each year for the past several years …The data suggests that there is a significant domestic as well as international trade for illegally taken plant and animal parts.” Poaching, the agency said, “is suspected to be a factor in the decline of at least 29 species of wildlife and could cause the extirpation of 19 species from the parks.” 

Rather than listen to the very agency charged with stopping poachers and safeguarding wildlife in our national parks, Congress listened to the bombast and balderdash of the gun lobby. The shot will be heard for generations, and our wildlife will pay the high interest on this credit card bill.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Consumers Deserve the Truth in Fur Labeling

Over the past few years, The Humane Society of the United States has conducted a series of investigations revealing widespread deception in the fur fashion industry. Dozens of well-known retailers and designers sold fur-trimmed jackets advertised as “faux” fur, but laboratory testing concluded that the fur was from animals, including from dogs and raccoon dogs—a member of the canine family raised in factory farms and skinned alive in China to feed this trade.

raccoon dog In response to national outrage, and exposés of the issue on programs such as “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show,” many retailers and designers did the right thing and adopted corporate policy changes to address the problems of false advertising, mislabeling or no labeling. JC Penney, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Foot Locker and Overstock.com went fur-free, so that consumers can have the highest level of confidence in what they are buying. Andrew Marc, Michael Kors, Sean John, Sierra Trading Post, Donna Karan, and Rocawear pledged to stop using raccoon dog fur, curbing the cruel killing of animals resembling wild dogs.

But there are still outliers in the industry, and when the marketplace fails to protect consumers, lawmakers and enforcement agencies need to set things right. The HSUS has filed a lawsuit against a number of major retailers including Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue for engaging in false advertising and mislabeling of fur garments. HSUS and HSLF have been working to pass fur labeling laws at the state and federal levels—Delaware and New York recently passed measures, joining Massachusetts and Wisconsin (which passed theirs in the 1940s) as states that protect consumers from fraudulent fur selling. The New Jersey state Assembly passed a fur labeling bill that is now advancing through the Senate, while the Maryland state Senate also passed a measure this year that failed to make it through the House.

But commerce in fashion and retail are national and even global in scope, and we need a federal standard to level the playing field. Fur-trimmed jackets imported from China will be sold from Chicago to Dallas to Los Angeles. With the technological advances in synthetic fur, and the dyeing of animal fur colors like pink and green to make it look fake, even the most careful and knowledgable shoppers often can’t tell the difference simply by visually inspecting the material. Especially when consumers purchase designer jackets over the Internet, they have no choice but to trust the retailer’s statements about those garments.

Fox That’s why the U.S. Congress should swiftly pass the Truth in Fur Labeling Act, introduced this week by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in the Senate and Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) in the House. The bill would close a loophole in the federal fur labeling law which currently allows many fur-trimmed garments to be sold without labels. Since the 1950s, any fur garment sold in the U.S. has had to include a label indicating the species of animal used and the country of origin, but there’s a gaping loophole in the law that excludes fur-trimmed garments if the value of the fur is $150 or less. At current pelt prices, that means a jacket could have fur on its collar or cuffs from 30 rabbits ($5 each), nine chinchillas ($16 each), three foxes ($50 each), or three raccoon dogs ($45 each), and be sold without a label. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that one in every seven fur garments doesn’t require labeling.

Imagine if one in every seven medicine bottles or food packages didn’t have a label, especially if you avoid certain foods or medicines because of allergies or religious reasons. Consumers making well-informed decisions based on complete information is a cornerstone of a functioning market economy. Shoppers who may have allergies to fur, ethical objections to fur, or concern about the use of certain species, cannot make informed purchasing choices due to this gap in the current law.

It’s time for fur-trimmed jackets, parkas, sweaters, vests, and accessories to meet the same federal standard as other fur garments, and provide the same important product information that’s already required six times out of seven. Ask your members of Congress to support the Truth in Fur Labeling Act, S. 1076 and H.R. 2480, to protect shoppers from having the fur pulled over their eyes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NRA Off Target in Protecting Poachers

Thousands of gun owners flocked to the National Rifle Association convention in Phoenix this past weekend, with participants and keynote speakers rallying around their core interests of concealed handguns, background checks, and President Obama’s gun policy. One topic that I suspect didn’t make the agenda: The NRA’s continued defense of poaching.

I wrote last year that the NRA was the main obstacle in Congress to passage of the Bear Protection Act, an anti-poaching policy which seeks to stop the illegal killing of bears for the commercial trade in their bile and gall bladders on the black market for use in traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. Then the gun group set its sights on allowing people to carry loaded weapons in national parks, rolling back a Reagan-era rule that was enacted as a way to combat poaching in these few remaining safe havens for wildlife.

Black bear credit iStockphoto Now, the NRA has barrels ablaze over a Pennsylvania bill that would put teeth in the state’s weak anti-poaching law and help game wardens crack down on the illegal killing of wildlife. Specifically, H.B. 97, introduced by longtime hunting advocate and NRA member Rep. Edward Staback (D-Lackawanna and Wayne counties), makes it a felony to assault an officer enforcing the wildlife code; increases the penalties for poaching, which are among the weakest in the nation; allows jail time for chronic or serial poachers; and requires the forfeiture of a hunting license for poaching violations.

When asked whether to take the side of law enforcement or criminals, the NRA chose the latter. The group’s Pennsylvania lobbyist, John Hohenwarter, apparently told a group of lawmakers and Pennsylvania Game Commission staff that there should be “an acceptable level of illegal activity.” The NRA’s argument is that responsible hunters just can’t restrain themselves from shooting animals out of season or going over their bag limits, as if they were accidentally driving 70 miles per hour on a stretch of highway where the speed limit is 65.

Hunters and outdoor columnists like Tom Venesky of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader rightly shot holes in this logic, making the point that poachers need to be punished for their crimes—even if it means losing their gun rights—rather than get away with a slap on the wrist. Venesky asked, “Does the NRA really believe we should protect the gun rights of a convicted poacher at the expense of our wildlife? I hope not.”

The bill’s author, Rep. Staback, accused the NRA of making several misleading statements in its scorched-earth campaign to derail the anti-poaching legislation. And he rejected the NRA’s argument that hunters should tolerate a small amount of poaching: “If passed into law, the penalties in H.B. 97 will leave no doubt to all of those who would pursue poaching, on a large and small scale, that their actions are viewed as serious crimes by the outdoor community and by legitimate hunters.”

It’s bad enough that the NRA defends bear baiting, pigeon shoots, and other practices that rank-and-file hunters consider inhumane and unsporting—but poaching is a crime. We wouldn’t tolerate a small amount of dogfighting or cockfighting, and we shouldn’t let the NRA bully lawmakers into giving poachers a free pass. If you live in Pennsylvania, tell your state legislators to support H.B. 97, and send a message that the state is no longer a safe haven for poachers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Take Action for Animals This Summer

It’s a life-changing event, and two months from now you can be part of it. Here’s what animal advocates had to say after previously attending the Taking Action for Animals (TAFA) conference in the nation’s capital:

If you are looking for the quotable quotes, the issues in depth, the nudge to get you really started in advocating for animals TAFA is a must.  TAFA will give you the skills to take your concern/advocacy to the next level.—Marcia from Boise, Idaho

This was my first animal activist seminar and IT KICKED A**!! I was so inspired. It was so wonderful to be around all those people…I felt so empowered. I have been an “armchair activist” but feel ready to jump in. Thanks HSUS and TAFA for providing me with the opportunity to gain this knowledge, learn, and grow as an activist.—Lise from Landover, Md.

This was an incredible experience. I learned some very useful information, and, more importantly, I left feeling absolutely inspired. It was an amazing feeling to be in a room full of people with similar concerns, passions, and interests.—Lisa from Hope Mills, N.C.

142x178_ginnifer_goodwin And TAFA 2009, to be held July 24-27, will be better than ever. Keynote speakers include U.S. Congressman and Congressional Animal Protection Caucus Co-Chair Jim Moran (D-Va.), “Big Love” and “He’s Just Not That Into You” star Ginnifer Goodwin, comedian and author Carol Leifer, and HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle. A special banquet dinner will feature a musical performance by singer Nellie McKay.

The plenary sessions and workshops have just been posted online, and you can find everything from planning effective campaigns to using social media to promote your cause. Learn about the critical issues facing pets, farm animals, wildlife, and animals in research, and what you can do to make a difference in your community. You’ll hear from 80 inspiring speakers and leaders from the field, representing groups like The HSUS, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Maddie’s Fund, and more.

TAFA is about boots on the ground for animals, and hundreds of advocates will descend on Capitol Hill to meet with their federal lawmakers about animal protection issues. We need people from all over the country who care about animals to take part in this unique opportunity to move the ball forward in Congress—with legislation pending on puppy mills, horse slaughter, fur labeling, and other critical issues, the timing could not be more urgent.

The early registration rate ends on June 19, so I hope you will take advantage of it and join me there. At just $140, TAFA is an incredible value for a comprehensive national conference, with so many stellar speakers and workshops. TAFA registration cost includes two lunches, a banquet dinner, food and drinks at a welcome reception, and other snacks between workshops. It also includes access to the exhibit hall where you can learn about dozens of nonprofit organizations, browse the wares of animal-related businesses, and even see a cooking demonstration from a gourmet chef.

This is the one animal protection conference not to miss. I hope to see you there in July.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Front Group Behind Cockfighting Criminals

Imagine a drug dealer peddling heroin in a schoolyard, and then using the ill-begotten gains to hire a professional lobbyist to advocate for relaxing the drug laws. Or using drug money to make political contributions, hoping to curry favor with lawmakers.

281x196_Cockfighting_Poster That’s precisely the type of behavior that Virginia cockfighters pleaded guilty to yesterday in federal court in Charlottesville. According to the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record and the Northern Virginia Daily, the Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association admitted a money laundering conspiracy, and the group’s former president, Chester William Fannon III, conceded that he made nearly $9,000 in illegal political donations to state and federal candidates.

The United Gamefowl Breeders Association and its state affiliates masquerade as people who raise and show chickens, as if there were a Westminster for birds. But this nefarious network has a transparent purpose, as it is the main group that consistently and vigorously opposes state and federal legislation seeking to strengthen laws against animal fighting. It wants to keep weak laws on the books—some no more severe than a parking ticket—for strapping razor-sharp knives to the legs of roosters and forcing them to hack each other to death for gambling profits and the enjoyment of spectators who are titillated by the bloodletting.

When a congressional committee held a hearing on a measure passed in 2007, making it a federal felony to move animals across state lines for the purpose of fighting, the UGBA’s president, Jerry Leber, testified against the bill. It was the New Mexico Gamefowl Breeders Association that filed a lawsuit to overturn the state’s 2007 ban on cockfighting, their claims rejected by the state appeals court just yesterday. When states like Alabama and Ohio consider proposals to upgrade their anti-cockfighting laws, it’s the UGBA affiliates that hire paid lobbyists and pack the hearing rooms with cockfighters—the only people with a vested interest in keeping the weak laws on the books and getting away with a slap on the wrist.

In the Virginia case, federal prosecutors called the VGBA “a statewide organization devoted to the preservation of ‘gamefowl’ (also known as ‘fighting roosters’ and ‘cocks’) and cockfighting.” They accused Fannon of collecting the money generated through paid membership and entrance fees to cockfighting matches, and using those funds to make political contributions to state and federal candidates on behalf of the cockfighters. According to the indictment, Fannon and the VGBA devised an elaborate ruse to make it look like the funds were coming from his personal account, rather than from the cockfighting profits.

In recent years, The HSUS, along with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), has made repeated complaints to the Internal Revenue Service for granting the UGBA a 501(c)(5) nonprofit tax exemption. This guilty plea and conviction should settle the question of whether these so-called “gamefowl breeding associations” are anything more than criminal syndicates who make their living collecting door fees at illegal cockfighting events and then laundering the money back into political campaigns to block the enactment of stronger animal fighting laws. We hope the IRS will now investigate the UGBA’s tax exempt status, and no longer give tax shelter to this front group for cockfighting criminals.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Europe Votes to Save Seals

An historic vote this morning in the European Parliament will have ripple effects for animals on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. All 27 member nations of the European Union will soon ban the import and sale of seal fur, drying up the market for Canada’s annual hunt of baby seals—the largest commercial slaughter of marine mammals in the world.

Seal pup in Atlantic Canada
© Nigel Barker

Just weeks ago, the world’s most beautiful nursery on the ice floes of Canada’s Atlantic coast was stained red and turned into a killing field. Tens of thousands of seal pups—some just 12 days old—were clubbed and skinned for their fur pelts, before they could even take their first swim. The Humane Society of the United States and its global affiliate, Humane Society International, have been working worldwide to end this massive global form of cruelty, and have been leading the fight from Ottawa to Brussels to Strasbourg.

Russia banned its own seal hunt this year, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calling it “such a bloody hunt” and saying “it is clear that it should have been banned a long time ago.” Canada has increasingly become isolated in the world community for allowing this horrible spectacle to continue.

Humane advocates often bemoan the fact that the U.S. lags behind Europe when it comes to animal protection laws. The European Union began phasing out steel-jawed leghold traps, veal crates for calves, gestation crates for pigs, and battery cages for hens, all before those policy reforms began to take root here. But today, the European Parliament finally achieved something that the U.S. did 37 years ago.

The U.S. Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, barring any trade in the parts of whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. Seal fur has been banned in the U.S. for more than three decades, although it has remained popular in Europe and is even used by top fashion designers in Copenhagen and Milan.

Now, with Europe joining the U.S., there will be little market left for Canadian fishermen to peddle their seal pelts. As last year’s seal hunt brought in only $7 million in landed value and less than $11 million in global exports, and the European share is estimated at $6.6 million, the implications for the future of the seal hunt are enormous. Indeed, just the promise of an EU ban was enough to drive the prices for seal fur down to $15 per skin this year—a decline of 86 percent since 2006.

The U.S. did its part decades ago, but can still do more to make sure the seal hunt is relegated to Canada’s history books. Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced a resolution, S. Res. 84, urging the Canadian government to end its commercial seal hunt. It’s similar to a measure passed by the House of Representatives in the 110th Congress, led by the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Ask your two U.S. senators to support this important resolution, and join the world community in speaking out against this cruelty. The writing is on the wall, and this is the year to make history for seals.

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