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November 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Obama Obstructionism: Procrastinating on Pythons

A bipartisan group from Florida’s congressional delegation is calling on President Obama to finalize a long-delayed rule barring the trade in dangerous giant snakes. A letter from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and a House letter led by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-16th,  and co-signed by Reps. David Rivera, R-25th, Ted Deutch, D-19th, Richard Nugent, R-5th, Vern Buchanan, R-13th, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-20th, and Allen West, R-22nd, urge the White House to stop dragging its feet on a rule to add nine species of deadly snakes, including pythons, anacondas, and boa constrictors, to the list of prohibited “injurious species” under the Lacey Act. 

PythonEvery day that goes by, more snakes are dying in the trade, more people are put at risk, there is more destruction of our natural resources because so many of these snakes have been turned loose in the wild, and more money is being wasted trying to control these animals who thrive as invasive species. This policy has been in the works for five years, and has been the subject of much scientific research and public comment.

Here’s the timeline:

  • June 2006: South Florida Water Management District petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting the listing of Burmese pythons as injurious under the Lacey Act.

  • January 2008: USFWS published a Notice of Inquiry in the Federal Register asking the public for information on several large constrictor snakes.

  • October 2009: U.S. Geological Survey issued a report finding that large constrictor snakes pose an invasive species risk and threaten the stability of native ecosystems.

  • March 2010: USFWS issued a proposed rule to list nine large constrictor snakes as injurious under the Lacey Act.

  • March 2011: The White House Office of Management and Budget/Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs received the final rule from USFWS (the review process is usually 90 days).

As Sen. Nelson wrote: “The rule was sent to OMB nearly nine months ago. In total, the rulemaking process has taken almost five years and in that time, over 100,000 more giant constrictor snakes have entered the U.S. And until these animals are listed as injurious, they will continue to flow into the country unabated. Further delay is unacceptable and the consequences could be lethal.”

Rep. Rooney and the House members added, “In addition to the safety threats and havoc the snakes are inflicting, there is a very real economic impact of their invasion. We are spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades and if additional invasive snakes are allowed to establish themselves, the native wildlife will be decimated. Our local water management district, the State of Florida, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Everglades National Park have already dedicated time and resources to eradicating these invasive snakes. Their funding and ability to continue eradication programs, while still performing their core missions, would be unsustainable.”

It begs the question: What’s the hold up? There should be no lingering doubts about the merits of this policy, especially after a two-year-old toddler was killed by a pet python, and adult deer are being gulped down whole by snakes in the wild. Nearly every major newspaper in Florida has weighed in urging the White House to stop delaying the snake rule, including the Gainesville Sun, Lakeland Ledger, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Tallahassee Democrat.

But officials in the Obama administration appear to be weak-kneed simply because they’ve been hearing some complaints from the reptile industry lobby—the very people who have cost the nation hundreds of millions of dollars, given the government control efforts that have been initiated, and have peddled high-maintenance dangerous predators at flea markets, swap meets, and over the Internet to unqualified people. It’s much more humane and fiscally responsible to deal with the problem on the front end through prevention. Why should U.S. taxpayers shoulder the financial burden for a few people who make selfish and reckless decisions?

Some observers believe the python industry lobbyists are not the only ones peddling influence at the White House to kill agency proposals. As Ari Shapiro reported this week on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a new study says OIRA “has served as a killing ground for protective rules” and that President Obama is watering down or undoing more proposed agency regulations than his predecessor did. 

When it comes to dangerous giant snakes, we can’t let politics trump science or animal welfare. Please take action today and urge the White House to finalize the rule to stop the importation and interstate movement of these deadly snakes as pets. Enough is enough, and we must move forward without delay.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Minibus Drives Forward for Animal Welfare Funding, Backward for Horse Slaughter

A conference committee has finished its work on the “minibus,” a combination of three out of the twelve appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2012, covering departments including agriculture, commerce, and transportation. The final package, which also includes a continuing resolution to keep the rest of the federal government operating through mid-December, will now go to the House and the Senate for an up or down vote this week, with no opportunity for amendments. Some of the news is quite good for animal welfare, with remarkable breakthroughs on key issues, and other news is terribly disappointing.

First, the bad news: The committee stripped the House-approved language prohibiting the use of U.S. Department of Agriculture funds for horse slaughter inspections, a defunding provision which had been in every agriculture spending bill since 2005. It reverses six years of U.S. policy against subsidizing foreign-owned horse slaughter plants, and it could pave the way for the resumption of equine abattoirs here on American soil. That change might take some time, since the states would have to allow horse slaughter plants, and there would undoubtedly be court challenges. But it’s extremely disappointing that the committee took this step backward for America’s iconic horses, and is willing to waste tax dollars on the cruel horse slaughter industry.

HorseAmericans don’t eat horses, and they don’t want them inhumanely killed, shrink-wrapped, and sent to Japan or Belgium for a high-priced appetizer. Horse slaughter lobbyists have been using a recent Government Accountability Office report to argue for the resumed use of tax dollars to produce horse meat for foreign gourmands, but the report is much more nuanced than they claim: One of the GAO’s recommendations is to ban the export of American horses for slaughter in Canada and Mexico. That’s exactly what we must do, and animal advocates must now redouble our efforts to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, S. 1176 and H.R. 2966, to finally stop American horses from ending up on foreign dinner plates.

There was, however, great news for horses also contained in the committee’s bill: Congress is poised to increase funding for enforcement of the decades-old Horse Protection Act, which has been stuck at the woefully inadequate ceiling of $500,000 since 1976. The minibus provides $696,000 for the Horse Protection Act—almost a 40% jump, and a very important signal that USDA needs additional resources to step up its enforcement of this federal law against widespread cruelty to show horses. (The conferees split the difference, since the Senate bill had $891,000 and the House bill had $500,000). The Horse Protection Act combats the criminal act of “soring” horses, the intentional use of caustic chemicals and sharp objects on horses’ hooves and legs to make it painful for them to step down and give them an artificial, high-stepping gait in show competitions—in other words, deliberate, illegal infliction of severe pain in order to cheat and win prizes.

In fact, in a very tough budget climate, with so many lawmakers focused on deficit reduction this year, we fought hard to keep funding levels strong for a range of animal welfare programs. The HSUS and HSLF worked with Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., and Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., to mobilize a sign-on letter, and won the bipartisan support of 125 representatives and 34 senators requesting modest funding levels that are critically needed to implement and enforce the Animal Welfare Act, the Horse Protection Act, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the federal animal fighting law, and programs to help prepare for the needs of animals in disasters and to address the shortage of veterinarians in rural and inner-city areas and public health practice. We also worked with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., to push specifically for the increased funding to crack down on horse soring.

Many programs were competing for dollars, and USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service took sizable cuts overall ($350 million and $47 million, respectively), as did many individual accounts. But, even within this broader political landscape, we were able to maintain consistent or increased funding levels for most animal welfare programs. Here’s where the funding levels stand in the minibus:

$27,087,000 for Animal Care—a $5,152,000 increase (almost a 20% jump), compared to the FY11 level of $21,935,000 and House bill level of $22 million. This is on top of the $4 million that was recently approved in reprogrammed funds specifically for improved enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act at large-scale puppy mills, which I reported earlier this month.

$16,275,000 for Investigative & Enforcement Services—a $2,320,000 increase, compared to $13,955,000 in FY11 and $14.5 million in the House bill. A portion of IES’ budget goes for animal welfare enforcement work; they also do follow-up on various other APHIS cases.

$85,621,000 for the Office of Inspector General, higher than either the House bill’s $80 million or the Senate bill’s $84,121,000, but below the $88,547,550 level in FY11. The OIG’s oversight work covers a broad span of issues, including many animal protection concerns such as animal fighting, puppy mills, horse soring, humane slaughter, and downed animals. 

$4,790,000 for veterinary student loan forgiveness, the same level as FY11 and in the Senate bill, and above the $4.2 million in the House bill. This program helps ease the shortage of veterinarians practicing in rural areas, as well as government positions (e.g., inspectors responsible for food safety and humane slaughter), by forgiving student debt for those who choose to practice in one of those underserved areas.

On humane slaughter enforcement, the minibus specifies that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should have no fewer than 148 full-time equivalent positions dedicated solely to inspections and enforcement related to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act—the same number required in FY11. More importantly, the final bill incorporated favorable committee report language urging USDA to improve its enforcement of the humane slaughter law:

Humane Slaughter—The Committee directs FSIS to provide a report to the Committee within 120 days of enactment of this act on the implementation of objective scoring methods being undertaken by FSIS to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act [HMSA], including what techniques have been adopted and to what degree, metrics used to determine whether or not these techniques have been successful in identifying and preventing HMSA violations, and any plans for expansion of these efforts. The Committee has long been supportive of objective standards for enforcement of HMSA, and was pleased that FSIS recently announced a final compliance guide for voluntary in-plant video monitoring.

The Committee has been informed that funding provided in fiscal year 2010 specifically for enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act may have been used to fund personnel whose responsibilities are not focused on humane handling. The Committee directs FSIS to ensure that personnel hired with funding provided specifically for Humane Methods of Slaughter Act enforcement focus their attention on overseeing compliance with humane handling rules for live animals as they arrive and are offloaded and handled in pens, chutes, and stunning areas.

The bill also incorporated favorable report language on animal fighting urging USDA to crack down on illegal dogfighting and cockfighting:

Animal Fighting—The Committee is very concerned about reports of illegal animal fighting activities and directs the Secretary to work with relevant agencies on the most effective and proper means for investigating and enforcing laws and regulations regarding these activities.

And the bill addressed the issue of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, with report language directed to the Food and Drug Administration:

Antimicrobial Resistance—The Committee commends the FDA for publishing Draft Guidance for Industry No. 209 and for conducting a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence related to antimicrobial use in food animal production and antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. However, over a year has passed since this draft guidance was released and the FDA has not yet identified a timeframe for finalizing and implementing this guidance or for taking other proposed steps to address antimicrobial resistance. Therefore, the Committee directs the FDA to set a timeline for when Guidance No. 209 and any implementing guidance will be finalized, when the FDA intends to release any changes to the Veterinary Feed Directive, and when it plans to issue an order regarding extra label uses of Cephalosporin drugs in food-producing animals. The Committee also recommends that FDA examine medically important antimicrobial drugs currently approved for use in food-producing animals and take steps to assure that such products are aligned with current safety standards.

Finally, the bill includes an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., supported by HSUS and HSLF, which prohibits agribusiness subsidy direct payments to millionaires (individuals or legal entities with an average Adjusted Gross Income in excess of $1 million). This may be the first time that an agriculture appropriations bill has tackled the tough issue of the multi-billion-dollar federal subsidies for industrial agriculture, including many of the highest-earning and most profitable farmers in the land. And it may be a sign that Congress finally has the political will to wean big agribusiness off the government teat.

On balance, while the omission of the horse slaughter provision is a major disappointment, animal advocates made great progress in the minibus on a wide range of issues of concern. We are grateful to House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Ranking Member Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Senate Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., and Ranking Member Roy Blunt, R-Mo., for their leadership on making sure animal welfare programs are adequately funded and enforced, and to the bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sens. Boxer, Vitter, and Landrieu, and Reps. Blumenauer, Smith, Whitfield, Roe, and Cohen who advocated in support of these funding levels. And thanks to all of the animal advocates who contacted their own members of Congress, while we have many fights ahead, we also have much reason to celebrate.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Key Committee to Decide on Footing the Bill for Horse Slaughter

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the agriculture spending bill for 2012, and a conference committee of key lawmakers is now working to iron out the differences and pass a final bill in the coming days. One key issue to be decided is whether Congress will potentially add millions of tax dollars in new spending to allow foreign-owned horse slaughter plants to re-open on American soil.

Every year since 2005, the agriculture appropriations bill has included a provision de-funding U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections at horse slaughter plants, which ensured the permanent closure of the last remaining equine abattoirs in Illinois and Texas and has prevented other cruel horse slaughter plants from opening around the country. This year, the bill passed by the House retained that language—thanks to a successful amendment offered by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.—but the Senate version did not.

HorseIf the conference committee adopts the Senate position and repeals this important de-funding prohibition, it could cost U.S. taxpayers about $5 million annually to subsidize government inspections of foreign-owned horse slaughter plants. Adding millions of dollars to the federal budget to inspect foreign-owned horse slaughter plants would be a step backwards for America’s iconic horses and a waste of tax dollars.

Lobbyists for the horse slaughter industry are scurrying around Capitol Hill making a case for this expenditure, and they would have us believe that they are helping horses by killing them. They’re not. Most American horse lovers and owners shudder at the thought of any horse of theirs ending up on a foreign dinner plate.

Horses gathered up by “killer buyers” don’t fare well. They suffer through long-distance transport and then a harrowing slaughter process, now in either Canada or Mexico. HSUS investigators have documented cruel treatment time and again.

The problem of American horses being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico is not solved by re-opening equine abattoirs on American soil. When a handful of slaughter plants did operate in the U.S., horses still traveled great distances in trucks designed for cattle, and the transport and slaughter processes involved were inherently inhumane. There’s no reason to believe that slaughter plants would spring up in every community to make the transport distances shorter, or that horses would evolve into a species that no longer has a flight response, which makes the stunning and slaughter process very difficult and hazardous to the animals.

We’ve got a policy vehicle, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (S. 1176/H.R. 2966), to put a stop to this mistreatment of animals. Americans don’t eat horses, and they don’t want them inhumanely killed, shrink-wrapped, and sent to Japan or Belgium for a high-priced appetizer. It’s time to stop the export of American horses for slaughter—not add money to the cash-strapped federal budget to open more slaughter plants.

Please take action here and see if your U.S. senator or representative is a member of the agriculture appropriations conference committee. Tell them that you support the House position on de-funding horse slaughter plants, and that taxpayers should not pay millions of dollars as a new subsidy for the cruel horse slaughter industry.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Stepping Up Enforcement Against Puppy Mills

The dogs are finally getting their day. In recent weeks, there have been two major actions that will step up federal enforcement to crack down on the worst puppy mill abuses in the country.

First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved to permanently revoke the licenses of two of the worst known puppy mill operators in the country, Marsha Cox of Mar-Don Kennels in Missouri, and Kathy Jo Bauck of Puppies on Wheels in Minnesota. Both operators had amassed page after page of Animal Welfare Act violations for issues such as filthy conditions, dogs in below-freezing temperatures without adequate protection from the bitter cold, and sickly or underweight dogs who had not been treated by a veterinarian. Bauck had been told to stop performing botched surgeries on dogs without a veterinary license in 2006, and convicted of animal cruelty and torture in 2009. It’s a wonder why such facilities were permitted to operate for so many years when conditions were so terrible, and we are grateful to the USDA for taking meaningful action to revoke these licenses.

Puppy millThese critical enforcement efforts then got an additional boost from congressional leaders, as they finalized work on the bill that funds USDA for this fiscal year. House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Ranking Member Sam Farr, D-Calif., announced that they will reprogram approximately $4 million for USDA to increase enforcement of problematic animal dealers, especially large-scale, commercial puppy mills. This funding prioritizes resources within the agency in the wake of problems revealed during a shocking internal audit last year.

The May 2010 audit by USDA’s Office of Inspector General revealed many deficiencies in APHIS’s Animal Care unit, which is charged with inspecting commercial puppy mills, kitten mills, and other large-scale animal dealers for compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act. The audit revealed that “Animal Care’s enforcement process was ineffective against problematic dealers,” allowing serious repeat violators to continue to harm animals without significant penalties, that “Animal Care inspectors did not cite or document violations properly to support enforcement actions,” and that minimal, if any, penalties were applied. The report contained shocking photos taken by Animal Care’s inspectors, including a puppy mill dog whose leg was so badly damaged due to an untreated injury that the bones were fully exposed, and another with his face completely covered in ticks.

The report recommended numerous improvements to enhance enforcement and better protect dogs, but as always, funding is a key component to implementing significant changes. This new funding support from Congress will help the USDA to properly enforce violations, maintain a full staff of inspectors, better train and monitor inspectors, shut down some of the most problematic puppy mills, and help prevent future abuses of dogs.

“The Inspector General confirmed evidence of a growing problem with large-scale dog dealers or ‘puppy mills,” said Chairman Kingston. “We have come together on a bipartisan basis to give the USDA the necessary resources for enforcement without sacrificing any other area of plant or animal health. This is a temporary fix and we look forward to working with the USDA to establish a more structured and dedicated source of funding for this program.”

“For too long reckless dog breeders have taken advantage of a lack of proper oversight to increase their profits at the expense of the health of thousands of dogs,” said Ranking Member Farr. “Protecting the health and safety of young dogs has been a passion I have carried from my days in the California Legislature to the halls of Congress. It has been a long and hard effort to extend these protections to our most vulnerable pets. These funds will finally allow the USDA to properly enforce violations, shut down puppy mills, and prevent future abuses of dogs and unsuspecting consumers.” 

One of the most interesting aspects of the OIG audit report was its noting that public pressure helped drive the study: “In the last 2 years, there has been significant media coverage concerning large-scale dog dealers (i.e., breeders and brokers) that failed to provide humane treatment for the animals under their care. The breeders, negatively referred to as “puppy mills,” have stirred the interest of the public, Congress, animal rights groups, and others.” The public demand for stronger enforcement of puppy mill abuses continues, and an online petition asking the Obama administration to crack down on puppy mills selling directly to the public over the Internet now has more than 30,000 signatures, and is currently the most popular open petition on the White House web site. 

We are grateful to Chairman Kingston and Ranking Member Farr, as well as to Senate Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., and Ranking Member Roy Blunt, R-Mo., for taking action to address the OIG’s damning report and to step up enforcement at puppy mills. Thanks to their leadership, and to all the citizens who weighed in, hope may be on the horizon for many dogs suffering in puppy mills.

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