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November 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Slow Down to Save Whales

Everyone knows speed kills. Speed limits in neighborhoods and school zones protect the safety of the community. But what if the government wanted to let those speed limits expire every few years? It would waste resources and threaten lives. Yet that’s exactly what the Obama administration is considering doing for a speed limit that has saved the lives of critically endangered whales.

Whale_right_270x224In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service enacted seasonal speed limits on large ships along the U.S. east coast in areas of great risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species with only a few hundred animals left. Ships 65 feet or greater in length are required to slow to 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour) in the southeast from Florida through South Carolina, where the whales give birth during the winter. Ships are required to slow during the spring and early summer in the waters off New England, which are an important feeding area for mothers and newborns. From New York through South Carolina, ships are required to slow during the whales’ seasonal migration.

The restrictions were initially put in place for five years to study their effectiveness, and during that time they have had a great impact in saving whales’ lives. Although in previous years multiple whales have been killed in collisions—such as in 2003 when several pregnant right whales were slain by ships—scientific studies have confirmed that during the trial period there have been no deaths within 40 miles of any of the protected areas. None. Seasonal restrictions have worked, and the cost to the shipping industry is minor. The federal government has estimated it to be only 0.148 percent of ocean freight costs, a small price to pay for saving the remaining 450 right whales, whose population has long teetered on the brink of extinction.

Sadly, these protective regulations are slated to expire in just a couple weeks, on December 9. While NMFS proposed this summer to make the rule permanent, the shipping industry has refused to accept that slow speeds save lives, and is pressuring the White House for another “sunset” clause that would force the government to continually re-evaluate the life-saving aspects of the rule. The industry argues there are times that ships need to go faster for the safety of maneuvering—although the regulations already provide flexibility and allow ships to exceed the speed limit as long as they document the safety need.

The regulation has been effective in preventing whale deaths, and there’s no need to waste government resources revisiting it over and over again. The Obama administration should act immediately to make the current speed limits permanent and protect the few remaining North Atlantic right whales. When slowing down saves the whales, the administration should hurry up and finish the job.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Most Dangerous Two Minutes in Sports

Racehorses are impressive, and it would be hard not to be awed by their power and grace. But there’s an important power they lack: unlike other athletes, they have no control over the drugs administered to them. That’s why groups such as The HSUS and HSLF and concerned legislators and citizens must be their voice.  

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade heard that voice today during a hearing on H.R. 2012, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, a bill introduced by Reps. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., to protect horses from pervasive race-day doping and other inhumane practices. (A companion bill, S.  973, is sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.). The legislation would safeguard both the animal and human athletes who participate in the sport, as well as help the racing industry’s reputation recover from bad publicity about cheating and unfair advantages.

Horse racingFive of the six witnesses who testified before the subcommittee this morning—including a former Minnesota Racing Commissioner, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, and HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle—spoke eloquently in favor of the bill. They explained that drugging is a serious problem that puts racehorses and jockeys at risk, and puts the integrity of the entire industry, including owners, trainers, and veterinarians, at risk as well. H.R. 2012 is a pro-animal, pro-industry measure that can wipe out the cheating by relying on the USADA, an independent body that has helped root out doping in other professional sports, to oversee and enforce new rules.

The sole opponent of the bill downplayed the existence of doping in horseracing, and argued for the status quo. But it’s clear that the status quo is not working, with an average of 24 horse deaths on racetracks around the country every week. There are 38 pari-mutuel racing jurisdictions in the U.S., with about 100 racetracks, and each state sets up its own rules with respect to medicating of horses, while horses and their trainers routinely move between the states for races. Imagine if the NFL had different rules in each of the 32 professional football stadiums, or the NHL in 30 different hockey arenas? It would be chaos with no national standards or consistency.

Almost all other professional athletes are subject to uniform safety and anti-cheating regulations, whether it’s the NFL, the Olympics, or professional bicycling. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act would require that any racetrack choosing to offer “simulcast” wagering, where the industry finds most of its profits, must first have an agreement with USADA. That agreement would include covering the costs of the anti-doping measures, with no additional cost to taxpayers. The bill calls for stiff penalties for cheating, including a “once and done” lifetime ban for the most severe doping violations, a “three strikes” rule for other serious violations, and suspensions for minor violations. It also bans race-day medication with a two-year phase-in to give the industry time to transition.

The rampant use of both legal and illegal drugs—not to get horses healthy, but to get them to the gate by masking painful injuries—consistently puts injured, sick, and worn out horses on the fast track to terrible injury or death during the race and after.  The cheaters in the industry are known to experiment with anything that might give them an edge, including Viagra, blood-doping agents, stimulants, cancer drugs, cocaine, “pig juice,” and last year’s new craze—“frog juice,” an amino acid found naturally in certain species of frogs.  “Frog juice” (dermorphin) is 40 times more powerful than morphine and is used to mask an injured horse’s pain. Doping injured horses to get them to race, when coupled with the recent trend of breeding horses for speed rather than durability, contributes to the increase in breakdowns, and to the epidemic of “castoffs” from the tracks who end up in the cruel horse slaughter pipeline.  

As Chairman Lee Terry, R-Neb., pointed out at the start of the hearing, horseracing has been around for a long time—maybe almost as long as the deep human relationship with horses has existed. But if the industry continues to discount animal welfare and allow dishonest and misleading practices, it will continue to see its popularity erode. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act will create more confidence in the sport of racing and a level playing field for competitors, while creating a safe culture for equine athletes.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trophy Madness, As Seen on TV

The world has reacted in outrage to a photo of TV host Melissa Bachman posing next to a dead lion she had shot and killed in South Africa, and the entire episode has shined another spotlight on the disturbing subculture that seeks to exploit imperiled species by shooting them for trophies—and filming it for TV entertainment. There seems to be a trend in trophy hunting reality shows that attempt to glamorize this killing, essentially amounting to a series of wildlife snuff films—and the animals are paying the ultimate price.  
 
Whether it’s Bachman and her lion or the recently canceled “Under Wild Skies,” in which NRA lobbyist Tony Makris shoots an African elephant in the face in Botswana and celebrates with a bottle of Champagne, these programs glorify a shameful trophy hunting industry that is harming wildlife populations and conservation efforts around the globe and putting human selfishness on display in the most disturbing way.
 
BachmanTrophy seekers aren’t focused on population management or putting food on the table. Instead they seek out the rarest and most iconic species they can find—often to get their names in the Safari Club International record books, which give awards such as the “Grand Slam” and “Inner Circle” for shooting a prescribed list of animals. For example, the “Trophy Animals of Africa” award requires the hunter to kill 79 different African species to win the highest honor. It doesn’t even matter whether the trophy was from an endangered wild animal or captive-raised one; in fact, Bachman’s lion was likely comfortable around photo-snapping tourists and shot on a canned hunt—at a fenced-in facility where shooters kill native and exotic big game animals trapped within enclosures.
 
This Orwellian concept of shooting endangered or rare species in order to save them still gets traction in some circles. Last month the Dallas Safari Club’s decision to auction off the opportunity to kill a black rhino—one of the most endangered species on the planet—came under fire. They justified it by saying the money raised at auction would go toward rhino conservation on the ground, but you don’t have to shoot an endangered animal in order to give philanthropically to conservation efforts. The groups truly interested in saving the rhino are funding anti-poaching efforts and working to reduce the demand for rhino horns.   
 
And other forms of hunting majestic creatures for their heads and hides continue on our side of the globe. Congress is still considering ill-conceived legislation that would allow American trophy hunters to import sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada, even though the polar bear is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Allowing a series of so-called “one-time exemptions” for individual hunters just encourages them to kill more imperiled animals around the world and put them in storage until they get an import allowance from their political allies sometime down the road. Just this past week, despite significant opposition from hundreds of thousands of residents, Michigan began its first-ever trophy hunt focused on a declining population of wolves—a hunt based on fraudulent claims about wolves haunting daycare centers and staring at people through glass doors, which never happened (and most of the livestock depredation occurred on one reckless farm that left cattle carcasses out to attract wolves).
 
The public generally supports some forms of hunting, especially for food. But relatively few people have tolerance for trophy hunting in its purest form and the irresponsible killing of rare creatures. Following the controversy surrounding Makris’ elephant kill, NBC Sports wisely removed his program from its line-up, and last year following revelations about Bachman’s blood-lust hobby, National Geographic dropped her as a contestant from an Alaskan survival show. It’s a sign that these wildlife killing shows don’t have a place with mainstream audiences.
 
While Bachman’s hunt apparently was legal, the fact is that African lions are threatened with extinction in the wild. The HSUS, Humane Society International, The Fund for Animals, and other organizations have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the African lion as an endangered species because its population has declined by more than half in the last 30 years and it occupies only one-quarter of its historic range. The U.S. is the world’s largest importer of African lion parts, as hunting trophies and for commercial purposes.
 
We must turn around the decline of these species, and callous trophy killing is part of the problem, not the solution. As we struggle to recover dwindling populations of wildlife before it’s too late, TV and film producers would do well to focus on celebrating the natural beauty of the animals and the critical efforts to protect them in the wild—and put aside their strange desire to showcase the killing of animals just for a trophy over the mantle or a name in the record books.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Birds Falling from the Sky

Leaving poisons out in the wild is, in comparison to other ways of killing animals, among the most inhumane and indiscriminate of methods. Highly toxic poisons wreak havoc on the animals who ingest them, regardless of whether they were the intended victims or non-target casualties like endangered species and family pets.

Such is the case with Avitrol, a nervous system toxicant promoted as a “flock frightening agent” or “repellent,” and commonly used to kill birds, primarily pigeons and sparrows in urban areas and starlings and blackbirds on farms. It causes birds who eat it to suffer convulsions, fly erratically, sometimes striking structures, vocalize repeatedly, and eventually die. The whole idea is that while the birds are suffering from the effects of the poison, their erratic behavior will frighten away other birds.

PigeonThe tremendous amount of suffering is frightening, alright. “Birds were just falling out of the sky. They would land, lie on the ground, flap and die,” a Staten Island resident told the New York Daily News. A neighbor added that the birds were flying around crooked—“as if they were drunk”—before torpedoing to the ground when more than 50 common grackles plummeted to the pavement.

In Cumberland County, New Jersey, residents found at least 80 dead birds—mostly red-winged blackbirds—causing a bloody mess on roadways in the residential area. A resident told NBC News, “They’d get up and try and fly and they were out of control so they’d crash and fall again.” Metro stations in Washington, D.C., closed when the discovery of numerous dead birds raised fears of a terror attack.

Despite these horror stories, Avitrol has been allowed in most of the U.S. for four decades, although it has been banned through much of Europe and restricted or prohibited in New York City, San Francisco, and Boulder, Colorado.  From 2002 to 2006, 151-175 pounds of the poison were sold in the U.S. annually—enough to kill more than 200 million birds each year.

Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has been reviewing the permitted uses for Avitrol.  The agency stopped short of removing this reckless product from the market, but it did recently strengthen protective measures. The EPA’s newly approved label for Avitrol products implements some long-awaited improvements by imposing restrictions on how the poison may be used.

New requirements include mandating users to remain onsite to monitor the poison if placed in areas open to the public. Avitrol is most commonly placed on rooftops and the new requirements limit access to authorized handlers of the poison until all dead birds and unused poison is retrieved. This change will protect people and children from accidental exposure, but will not necessarily protect non-target animals. The requirements also direct Avitrol users to make sure federally protected birds are not harmed; pick up unconsumed bait at the end of each day, where it may be a hazard; retrieve dead birds in and around occupied buildings (which may prevent secondary poisoning of raptors who feed on the poisoned birds); not use where non-target birds are feeding; and ensure that pets, livestock, and people are kept away from the poison.

The EPA’s new safety measures are a step in the right direction, but are not enough to stop the mass killings of birds and non-target animals, and the repeated sequels of birds falling from the sky and other scenes from horror movies. The best solution is to use more humane ways to solve bird conflicts that don’t kill wild birds. Public agencies and private companies can use effective methods such as reducing and eventually stopping large-scale feeding of pigeons; using exclusion techniques to prevent roosting and nesting; and limiting flock size with pigeon birth control. More information on non-lethal techniques—which are better for birds and our communities—is available here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Horse Soring in the Hot Seat on Capitol Hill

Tennessee walking horses got a well-deserved boost today in a House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade hearing on H.R. 1518, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act. The bill, introduced by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has the broad, bipartisan support of 230 cosponsors—more than half the House—and the Senate version, by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., has 27. At today’s subcommittee hearing, a number of lawmakers, including Rep. Whitfield and Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., spoke eloquently in favor of this critical anti-cruelty, anti-crime legislation to fortify the 43-year-old Horse Protection Act.

Horse soringSoring is the deliberate infliction of pain to the hooves and legs of show horses—applying caustic chemicals to their pasterns (ankles), inserting hard or sharp objects into their sensitive hooves, and using other painful techniques to force an artificially high-stepping gait. It’s a form of cheating that gives those who engage in this abuse a competitive edge over owners and trainers who do not, as exposed by an HSUS undercover investigation in 2012 at the training barn of Jackie McConnell, one of the breed’s most celebrated trainers caught on camera beating a horse and applying caustic chemicals on the legs to burn his flesh and then wrapping the treated legs in plastic to cook in the chemicals. It’s animal torture, and nothing less.

Despite enactment of the Horse Protection Act in 1970 to end soring, there remain those in the Tennessee walking horse industry who continue the abusive practice and go to great lengths to avoid detection. Decades of corrupt industry self-regulation have fostered an environment in which unscrupulous trainers and owners subject horses to torturous practices for the sake of prize money and a blue ribbon, with industry inspectors routinely turning a blind eye to soring violations and issuing weak penalties.

The committee heard witnesses on both sides of the bill, with the proponents, including Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, and Dr. Ron DeHaven, executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and former administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, testifying that the PAST Act presents the best path forward to a sound economic and ethical future for the breed. Witnesses in favor of the bill also clearly explained how the PAST Act could pull the walking horse industry back from the economic brink by ending soring and thus removing the stigma of abuse from the breed, allowing sound, humanely trained walking horses to shine in the show ring.

The opponents of the PAST Act at the hearing lamented that soring is a terrible practice, but they simply argued for more industry self-regulation and didn’t have any proposed solutions for actually ending the abuse. It was like listening to members of the so-called gamefowl breeders association, saying that cockfighting is a cruel and terrible thing but we don’t need any laws or actual standards in society. It was the same tired story about how “a few bad apples” are committing the crimes, but we know based on federal audits and other independent reports that the problem is systemic.

If we really want to eliminate soring, which has been rampant in the industry for decades, we can’t just have more of the same. The PAST Act is our best opportunity to stamp out this cruelty, starting with stepped up penalties and accountability for anyone involved with this hideous practice. It bans the stacked shoes and chains used to cause pain to horses’ hooves and legs, and it closes the door on the corrupt self-policing system that’s allowed the problem to fester.

The subcommittee hearing was an important step, and we must keep pushing to get the PAST Act over the finish line and make soring a thing of the past. Now is the time to contact your U.S. representative and senators, and ask them to cosponsor and help enact H.R. 1518/S. 1406 into law.

Friday, November 08, 2013

A (Wolf) Pack of Lies

There is more fallout this week in the wake of the MLive.com investigative series exposing politicians and state officials who made up stories out of whole cloth in order to prompt Michigan’s first wolf hunting season in half a century. A leading booster of the wolf hunt, Sen. Tom Casperson, took to the floor of the state Senate yesterday and apologized to his colleagues and to voters for including a fictional account about wolves at a daycare center in a resolution he authored in 2011.

Wolf2Sen. Casperson acknowledged, “I was mistaken, I am accountable, and I am sorry. Words matter. Accuracy matters. Especially here, with a topic that is so emotional and is so important to so many, especially those whose way of life is being changed in my district. A decision here of whether or not we use sound science to manage wolves, as with all decisions this body makes, should not be based on emotions, agendas or innuendo, but rather on facts.”

The Michigan DNR’s furbearer specialist, Adam Bump, also took an apology tour this week, appearing on Michigan Radio to explain the comments he previously made in May, when he had said that wolves were showing up on people’s porches and staring at them through glass doors. Bump says he misspoke back then, and the scenario didn’t exist.

Lawmakers and agency staff who claim the mantle of “sound science” have been telling tall tales, trying to drum up an irrational fear of wolves as part of the public debate to push through their political agenda. They used heated rhetoric and scare tactics to pass a law designating wolves a game species, and then to pass a second law circumventing the voter referendum process because they didn’t like the fact that citizens gathered more than 250,000 signatures to place the wolf hunting issue on the statewide ballot. The fact is, there has never been a wolf attack on a person in Michigan, it’s already legal to shoot wolves that threaten livestock or public safety, and more than half of all the reported incidents of wolf depredation have come from a single feckless farm that leaves dead cattle out to rot and attract wolves to a free buffet.

It’s one thing for these public officials to own up to their mistakes. But the people of Michigan need more than apologies—they need compensatory action. The first wolf hunting season, set to begin one week from today, is the result of a public policy decision based on false information, and it must be suspended. Wolves have just recently come off the endangered species list and have not been hunted in Michigan for decades. What harm would it do to retain the status quo for another year, and allow a fair and honest debate to play out based on the facts so Michigan voters can hear from both sides and make an informed decision in November 2014?

It’s up to Gov. Rick Snyder to bring some accountability and transparency to state government, by suspending next week’s wolf hunt. This was an abuse of power and an abuse of the process, and the only way to repair some of the damage and restore the public trust is to let the people have a say on whether wolves should be hunted, or not.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Crying Wolf

MLive.com, which reports for eight newspapers across Michigan, has released the first stories in a jarring investigative series on how state politicians used exaggerated or completely fabricated tales of wolf incidents to justify stripping away legal protection for wolves and opening a trophy hunting season on the state’s small population of wolves. It shows government at its worst, using half-truths, falsehoods, and distortion to make policy decisions, and trying to cover up the mistakes by denying Michigan voters the opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

WolfWhen Upper Peninsula lawmakers pushed Congress in 2011 to remove wolves from protected status under the Endangered Species Act, the state legislature passed a resolution stating, “Wolves appeared multiple times in the backyard of a daycare center shortly after the children were allowed outside to play. Federal agents disposed of three wolves in that backyard because of the potential danger to the children.”

As MLive reported, however, “there were no children in the backyard. There was a single wolf, not three. No wolves were shot there, on that day or any day….It is the story of how Michigan lawmakers embraced an account that never happened, and it is the story of how they sent it to Congress for consideration—opening the door for a hunt.”

It’s not the only time state officials have wildly exaggerated the facts about wolves. MLive noted:

Adam Bump, the state’s fur bearer specialist, allows he misspoke when he gave an interview to Michigan Radio that was broadcast in May.

“You have wolves showing up in backyards, wolves showing up on porches, wolves staring at people through their sliding glass door while they're pounding on it exhibiting no fear,” Bump told the NPR affiliate.

That did not happen, he concedes.

When it comes to wolf predation of livestock, the alleged rationale for a wolf hunt, that justification quickly unravels. From the same report by MLive:

And while attacks on livestock are cited as a reason to reduce wolf numbers, records show one farmer accounted for more cattle killed and injured than all other farmers in the years the DNR reviewed.

The farmer left dead cattle in the field for days, if not longer, a violation of the law and a smorgasbord that attracts wolves. He was given an electric fence by the state. The fence disappeared. He was also given three “guard mules.”

Two died. The other had to be removed in January because it was in such poor condition.

In wolf circles, those problems are known. Lesser known is that they persist. Wildlife officers again in May found dead cattle on his farm, MLive learned under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Visiting reporters in October also saw a months-old cow carcass in an open barn.

The fact is, Michigan legislators lobbied the federal government to take away wolves' protection under the Endangered Species Act, as a prelude to their own legislative action to execute a state wolf hunting program. Specifically, once those pesky federal protections were out of the way, they passed a state bill during the lame-duck session to make the wolf a game species, again using exaggerated numbers about wolf depredation from one farm with reckless management practices. When Michigan voters collected more than 250,000 signatures to correct this mistake and place the wolf hunting law on the statewide ballot, the legislature passed a second law to give the power to the unelected, politically appointed Natural Resources Commission, making an end run around the voters since the commission’s decisions are not subject to any voter referendum.

There are only 658 wolves in Michigan, down from 687 just two years ago. When there are legitimate conflicts, it’s already legal to kill wolves that are threatening livestock or public safety. There’s no reason to shoot wolves at random in a trophy hunting season—especially as nearly all of the alleged reasons that have been put forth have proven to be false. Independent wolf experts, those not working for the state, argue that a wolf hunt is ill-conceived.

Given the shocking findings of this investigative report, Michigan officials should call off the first wolf hunting season which is scheduled to begin on November 15, and give the state’s voters the opportunity to decide on this issue next November. It’s time to stop trusting the scare tactics, myths, and downright fiction about wolves, and start trusting the voters. Visit KeepWolvesProtected.com to find out how you can help.

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