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September 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

First Pets Lead the Way on Disaster Preparedness

September is National Preparedness Month, and with Hurricane Joaquin approaching the Bahamas and possibly impacting the East Coast, it’s more important than ever to have a disaster plan ready to keep your family (including your pets) safe.

My rescued kitten, Basil, has a new video and checklist with resources for creating a basic pet disaster preparedness kit. Check it out at humanesociety.org/disasterkitten.

I’m really pleased that today, as part of America’s PrepareAthon!, the White House has released a new disaster preparedness video featuring the Obama family’s pets, Bo and Sunny.

The First Dogs are spreading the word to millions of animal lovers nationwide, about the importance of being prepared with basic items such as pet food, medications, veterinary records, bottled water, a manual can opener, food dishes, cat litter, up to date pet photos and ID tags and other supplies. The White House has other resources for pet owners available online at go.wh.gov/ReadyPets.

We are grateful to the Obama family and administration for spreading the message that preparing for a disaster means making sure a plan is in place for all members of the family—including our beloved pets. Watch the video below on how to include your pets in your disaster preparedness plan, and for more resources on staying safe during a disaster, visit humanesociety.org/disaster.

 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Federal Court Upholds Decision to Prohibit Import of Wild-Caught Whales from Russia

There’s a growing public awareness about the suffering of captive whales, especially since the release of Blackfish in 2013, and latest reports indicate that Sea World’s profits have dropped 84 percent. It’s perplexing, then, that some companies would still fight so hard to try to capture wild whales from the oceans and import them into the U.S. for an outdated and failing business model.

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Naomi Rose for The HSUS

Fortunately, there was good news on this issue yesterday, when a federal court upheld the National Marine Fisheries Service’s denial of an import permit application from the Georgia Aquarium. The case has critical implications for both the conservation of wild populations of marine mammals and the welfare of whales held in captivity in U.S. exhibition facilities.

In 2012, the Georgia Aquarium (in cooperation with three Sea World facilities and two other aquariums) sought permission to import 18 beluga whales captured from the Sea of Okhotsk near Russia by a company seeking to sell the majestic white whales to an exhibition facility. When the whales were captured in 2010, five of them were less than two years old and were likely still nursing and not yet independent of their mothers (who were not captured). The federal government rejected the permit application, finding that the Georgia Aquarium failed to demonstrate, as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, that the import would not likely have an adverse impact on the species and that the import would not likely result in the capture of additional beluga whales.

The court found that the agency’s decision was well-reasoned and dismissed the aquarium’s lawsuit challenging the permit denial. The Humane Society of the United States had filed a brief to provide the court with information about the serious animal welfare and marine conservation concerns inherent in capturing and transporting these highly intelligent and sensitive beings for captive exhibition.

The decision makes clear that the “primary purpose of the MMPA is to protect marine mammals” and “was not intended as a ‘balancing act’ between the interests of industry and the animals.” It’s an important step in the trend toward ending the inhumane and unsustainable trade in wild cetaceans, or marine mammals, by U.S. exhibition facilities—indeed, it has been more than 20 years since the last wild-caught cetacean was imported directly into the U.S. for public display, and even Sea World now claims it would not take the whales if they were imported.

It means the government’s decision to reject these cruel imports will stand, and it reinforces a comprehensive record of protecting marine life during President Obama’s administration. Just last year, President Obama issued an executive order expanding the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to 490,000 square miles—six times its current size—making it the largest marine monument in the world. The sanctuary is expected to protect nearly two dozen types of living marine mammals, along with threatened species of sea turtles.

In addition, the Department of Commerce revised the regulations governing the dolphin-safe label, requiring that all fisheries provide a certification that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured during the harvesting of tuna. NMFS also finalized rules to restrict fishing gear harmful to endangered right whales and permanently extend speed limits for ships along the east coast to prevent collisions with endangered whales. Most recently, NMFS took a significant step for global protections of marine mammals by issuing a proposed rule aimed at deterring foreign commercial fishing activities from harming these animals.

But there is still much to be done to address the plight of captive marine mammals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture drafted a proposed rule back in 2012 to set improved standards, including space requirements and water quality for marine mammals kept in exhibition facilities, but that rule has been languishing and has not yet been issued for public comment. It’s been more than two decades since the agency began working on this regulation and each day of delay means more suffering for the hundreds of orcas, belugas, dolphins, seals and sea lions used for commercial entertainment and interactive “swim-with” experiences.

Members of Congress are urging the White House to issue its long-delayed proposed rule, with Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., leading the effort in the House, and Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., winning an amendment on the issue in the Senate Appropriations Committee by a vote of 18 to 12.

The Obama administration has taken major steps forward for whales, but now must finish the job to establish more humane standards of care for captive marine mammals.

Friday, September 18, 2015

OIG Audit Fails to Address USDA’s Cruel War on Wildlife

It’s a government program that’s more than 100 years old, uses outdated and ineffective practices, costs tens of millions of tax dollars, and kills and maims tens of millions of animals, including unintended victims such as endangered and threatened species, and beloved family pets.

No wonder members of Congress and thousands of concerned citizens have urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address these critical problems with its archaic Wildlife Services program, especially the unacceptable and cruel practices that the program conducts in the name of lethal predator control—using toxic poisons, steel-jawed leghold traps, and aerial gunning of wildlife.

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The auditors glossed over the cruel methods that federal agents use, such as leaving animals to suffer in snares, traps, or from poisons. Above, a coyote in a leghold trap.  Photo by Dick Randall

At the request of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., former Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., and Sen. (then-Rep.) Gary Peters, D-Mich., the USDA’s Office of Inspector General agreed to conduct an audit of the controversial program. The audit was a long time coming, for an agency using a 19th century model of wildlife management and failing to adapt to modern concerns or technologies. In the past decade alone, the Wildlife Services program killed nearly 34 million wild animals, with taxpayers footing a large part of the $1.14 billion bill.

For so many of us, this brought hope that finally the program would be exposed for what it is: a perpetual, irresponsible war on wildlife on behalf of a few private special interests, allowed to operate without transparency, as in the Wild, Wild West. Earlier this year, The Humane Society of the United States released a new white paper, “Wildlife Disservice: The USDA Wildlife Services’ inefficient and inhumane wildlife damage management program.” The paper proposed a series of common-sense reforms, such as incorporating animal welfare and conservation into the decision making process, eliminating the most inhumane and indiscriminate killing methods, such as toxic poisons, and updating the program’s environmental impact statement.

The OIG audit released yesterday, however, answers none of the concerns posed by the lawmakers and citizens who requested the investigation, and offers no pathway for reform. The auditors simply glossed over the extremely cruel methods that federal agents use, such as leaving animals to suffer in snares, traps, or from poisons that did not act quickly. They provided no insight into how more than $1 billion was spent from 2004 to 2013, much of it from federal tax dollars, and whether those funds were used effectively to solve wildlife conflicts.

The main conclusion of the audit is simply that Wildlife Services complied with the law. But arguing that the activities are legal doesn’t mean they aren’t outdated, inhumane, ineffective, and a waste of tax dollars. Our government should be held to a higher standard in conducting its business, and there are better ways of addressing wildlife conflicts than there were a century ago. Legal or not, citizens are demanding less waste, more transparency, and humane treatment.

In an era where cutting federal spending and eliminating government debt is widely encouraged, Wildlife Services lives on as an outlier. It is unacceptable that federally funded wildlife exterminators will continue to freely poison, drown, snare, and shoot wildlife from airplanes and helicopters using the taxpayers’ money and with very little accountability.

There is a legitimate case to be made for a federal agency that helps to solve wildlife conflicts and provides training and research on best practices with an emphasis on innovation and non-lethal solutions.

But Wildlife Services in its current form is a relic of the past. It exterminates wildlife as a government subsidy for private ranchers and other special interests, using inhumane and ineffective methods, and wasting federal funds. We have a right to expect better from our government, especially when humane alternatives are on the rise.

Reform is most urgently needed in order to bring Wildlife Services into the 21st century. Congress should continue to press USDA to adopt a more balanced approach aligned with mainstream American values that support humane, nonlethal methods for wildlife damage management.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Companies Step Up for Cage-Free Eggs

Today, on The Hill’s Congress Blog, I wrote about how the pork and beef industries, funded by check-off dollars, lobbied against federal legislation that would have improved the treatment of egg-laying hens – taking a knee-jerk position despite the fact that the bill had no impact on them. Since Congress punted on the issue, the corporate sector has stepped up big time. We are seeing a rapid movement among producers, retailers, and restaurant chains toward cage-free eggs, with major corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s making recent announcements. Read the full article below or on The Hill’s website.

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The vast majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S. are crammed into tiny, barren battery cages so small and cramped that the animals can’t even fully spread their wings. Animal welfare advocates and egg industry groups have been battling for years over the use of these cages, but in 2011, they set aside their differences and identified a solution for housing 300 million laying hens that balances animal welfare and the economic realities of the industry. The United Egg Producers, which represents more than 90 percent of egg farmers, and The Humane Society of the United States reached an accord in which both organizations agreed to jointly pursue federal legislation to improve the treatment of these animals and provide consumers more information about the origins of the eggs they purchase.

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Some of the nation’s largest egg producers are making investments in cage-free housing systems to meet consumer demand. Photo by David Paul Morris/For The HSUS

The Congress had an opportunity in the last session to enthusiastically embrace this kind of problem-solving. The bill, with 18 cosponsors in the Senate and 150 in the House, was backed not only by animal advocates and egg producers, but also by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Center for Food Safety and other major stakeholders. With all the affected parties lined up in support of a reform, you’d think it would be a no-brainer. It was good for animals, for egg farmers, for science and for consumers.

But remarkably, other sectors of animal agriculture—namely the pork and beef industries, which have no involvement in egg production and would not be impacted by a bill dealing only with eggs—cried foul and stamped their feet. They argued that Congress should not be in the business of setting standards for agriculture—never mind that there are already federal laws on humane slaughter and transport of livestock, and that these groups gladly take hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts from federal taxpayers. They claimed they knew better than the egg industry about what was needed for its sustainable future.They made a threat – one they wouldn’t be able to deliver on – to tank the Farm Bill if the reform sought by egg producers was included in the package. Lawmakers punted, abdicating the mantle of leadership on this issue.

With Congress failing to act on an agreement forged by the key stakeholders, the debate has reverted back to the states and to the corporate sector.Fortunately, major food retailers have had more of an appetite to deal with the issue in a proactive way than have our elected officials at the state and federal levels.

Most recently, McDonald’s—which buys 3 percent of all eggs produced domestically—announced it will transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada. Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group, Delaware North and Centerplate—the nation’s top five food service companies, using, combined, well over a billion eggs each year—have all announced aggressive timelines for switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs. Nestle, the world’s largest food company, has announced it will eliminate cages. Walmart has announced it’s working to end battery cage confinement. The Cheesecake Factory, Starbucks, General Mills, Dunkin’ Donuts and many other companies have adopted similar cage-free policies.

As a result, some of the nation’s largest egg producers are making investments in cage-free housing systems to meet this consumer demand. Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms—the second-largest egg producer with roughly 25 million hens—announced that it will move over time to 100 percent cage-free operations. Arizona-based Hickman’s Family Farms, another top producer, announced a major cage-free expansion and said it believes cage-free “is the future of our industry and our business.” Smart businesspeople and farmers know that the future of egg production is outside of cages.

Forward-thinking retailers and producers are moving the egg industry forward, even though the pork and beef lobbies callously blocked their preferred pathway of reform. Groups like the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are grossly abusing the check-off program and treating it like a slush fund to finance their lobbying schemes. Big Pork and others have worked to lobby Congress to set up mandatory payment transfers from every farmer. They’re supposed to use the tens of millions generated to do advertising to promote their commodity. The reality is, they divert millions of dollars to their own trade associations—money that these farmers (and the consumers who purchase these products) never intended to give to them. It leads to knee-jerk policies, and lobbying against the interests of consumers, animal welfare, and the very farmers the trade groups claim to represent.

While they may have some power to keep things static in Congress, these agribusiness trade groups have shown themselves to be powerless in stopping consumers and retailers from driving change in the marketplace. Big Pork is out of step with its own customers, fighting to hold onto antiquated systems like cramming breeding pigs into metal cages where the animals can’t even turn around and are virtually immobilized for the majority of their lives.

There is much that can still be done by elected officials at various levels. But for now, the corporate sector has shown real leadership, and nearly 100 food companies have pledged to get gestation crates and battery cages out of their supply chains—to make these abusive practices a thing of the past. The trajectory on this issue is clear, and American food production will invariably move toward a cage-free and crate-free future and away from inhumane and unsafe confinement systems.

 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

FDA Takes Action to Ensure the Safety of Pet Food

Two-thirds of American households have pets. They are cherished members of our families, with 83 million dogs and 96 million cats living with us. We trust that the food we buy for them is safe and nutritious, and will contribute to their long and healthy lives as beloved family members. But in recent years, consumer confidence has been shaken, with a series of recalls of pet food and treats. Thousands of dogs and cats were sickened or died when melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, was found in several brands of pet food.

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Kevin Wolf/AP Images for HSI

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took action to address the threat of adulterated pet foods, and released a final rule to ensure protective measures are put in place for the safety of the food we give our pets. This is especially significant because until now, requirements governing pet food safety have been almost non-existent.

The new rule calls for manufacturers of pet food, including importers, to establish protective procedures at critical points in the production process where problems are likely to arise. Makers of animal food sold in the U.S. will be required to ensure prudent measures are in place to keep pet food free of contaminants and hazardous materials. The rule also requires written plans to prevent food-borne illnesses, like Salmonella, and shifts the focus from responding to food contamination to preventing it.

This rule has been a long time in the making with key Members of Congress demanding greater oversight of the pet food industry. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., led the charge by introducing the Human and Pet Food Safety Act. Key elements of their bill were incorporated into an FDA package signed into law in September 2007, which required the agency to set standards for pet food, strengthen labeling rules, establish an early warning system, post searchable online recall lists and compel companies to report contaminated food and make key records available during investigations so contaminants can be traced quickly.

The momentum continued forward in December 2010 when Congress enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a sweeping reform to better protect human and animal health by preventing food safety problems before they occur. The FDA then set to work writing seven new comprehensive rules to implement the many components of FSMA, and this new one that regulates food made for animals was part of that process. We commend the agency for its efforts to better protect the food we give our beloved pets.

When it comes to pet food safety, a preventive approach is the best approach. But up until now, business as usual wasn’t cutting it to avoid these outbreaks. For instance, as of September 2014, the FDA had received around 5,000 reports of pet illnesses apparently related to the consumption of jerky-style pet treats. While the FDA continues to investigate these illnesses, it has not definitively identified the precise cause.

While this rule will likely not prevent all outbreaks of illness and food recalls, it is a much-needed first step to ensure that there are safety protocols in place from the start in the manufacturing process of pet food. Manufacturers will be charged with assessing and tracking risks that could threaten our pets, which will shorten the time from outbreak to solution in the future and should keep issues from occurring in the first place.

The FDA also has been granted much-needed mandatory recall authority under FSMA, whereas before, food recalls could only be done on a voluntary basis by food companies. Since September of last year, the agency has reported 36 recalls on pet food and treats, which have protected countless pets from becoming sick. Some of these recalls were taken at the request of the FDA, while most of the recalls occurred voluntarily by the pet food companies.

Our hope is with the implementation of this new rule, we will see fewer outbreaks and recalls. But remember that the best protection for our pets will come from watchful pet owners. The HSUS has the latest and most up-to-date recall information on its pet food safety webpage, as well as tips for pet owners on how to best protect your cherished companions.

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