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August 2016

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The killing of coyotes: From violent video to the federal war on wildlife

With the trial scheduled to begin today, a last-minute plea agreement was reached in the case against a Michigan hound hunter in connection with the gruesome killing of a coyote captured in a YouTube video. A second defendant, facing a felony charge of torturing an animal and misdemeanors for animal cruelty and failure to kill wounded game, was found not guilty a few months ago.

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Photo courtesy of Allison Gibson/For The HSUS

The outcome of this case should be disappointing to anyone who stomached the tough stuff on these sickening snuff films, which showed decidedly dark behavior about as far removed from responsible hunting as you can get. These films were disquieting portrayals of dead-eyed apathy to the suffering of living beings.

In the first video, a coyote, injured and prostrate after suffering several gunshot wounds, lies in the snow as a narrator records the animal’s suffering and describes his intent to “let [the dogs] finish him off.” The barking and braying of hounds can be heard in the distance, and when the dogs finally reach the wounded creature, the resulting “fight” is more brutal, deflating, and outright soul-crushing than you can imagine. The cries of the wounded creature as he weakly attempts to defend himself only get shriller, more desperate and high-pitched until finally it ends, the animal’s life essence bleeding out and turning the snow to crimson. A 12-year-old child looks on as the dogs tear the creature to shreds—as if it were some sort of enjoyable or educational experience.

The second video depicts another coyote lying in the road, having been run down and hit intentionally by the truck from which the videographer films the animal’s agonizing final moments. For several minutes, the animal is left to the realities of his pain and imminent death, before he is eventually shot with a pistol from the vehicle.

In the hounding case, a jury found the cruelty statute applicable only to domesticated companion animals like dogs and cats, and not to wild animals in a hunting situation. Meanwhile, the hunter in the road killing case pled guilty to reckless use of a firearm, despite the appalling sequence of conduct that involved intentionally running down a coyote with a car.

The hunting ethic calls for a clean and quick kill, and these two individuals were seeking just the opposite—to prolong the animals’ agony for sadistic sport. Any responsible hunter or decent-minded person should call for the state and federal laws to be strengthened, to clearly punish the malicious torture of a defenseless animal.

While there are individual acts of cruelty to coyotes that go beyond the pale, there are also more concerted and normalized campaigns against these creatures. For 30 years, the federal government waged war on coyotes, killing millions of them in a scorched-earth campaign to eliminate unwanted animals from the United States. The result—aside from coyotes’ biological adaptation and the spread of ever more of them throughout the country—was a national hardening of conscience against them.

As writer and historian Dan Flores describes in the recent book, “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,” they became scapegoats and targets of an irrational animus, despite field observations from revered biologists like Adolph Murie who documented them as intelligent animals capable of a wide range of emotions. As Flores wrote this month in a New York Times op-ed, “No other wild animal in American history has suffered the kind of deliberate, and casual, persecution we have rained down on coyotes.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s century-old “Wildlife Services” program is a little known, taxpayer-funded agency that principally focuses on the outdated and inefficient model of lethal control when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. And the killing it authorizes and carries out routinely utilizes shockingly inhumane and indiscriminate methods, such as toxic poisons, steel-jawed leghold traps, and aerial gunning to kill tens of thousands of coyotes each year. These animals are poisoned, gassed, shot from the ground and from aircraft, and killed in painful traps and snares to benefit private ranchers grazing their livestock on public lands.

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, while the U.S. taxpayers foot a large share of the bill. 

We have a right to expect better from our government, especially when humane alternatives are on the rise. The Obama administration should ban the most inhumane and indiscriminate methods of killing coyotes, and bring much-needed reform to this outdated and wasteful government program. It would be an amazing capstone to a presidency that has already produced substantial benefits and protections to animals.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Trump's ag A-team a royal flush of animal protection haters

We already knew that Donald Trump would be bad news for wildlife—he’s got two sons who travel the globe to slay rare wildlife, and the elder son has indicated he wants to serve as Secretary of the Interior. But now we know that his Secretary of Agriculture—also a critical post for animal welfare—could be murder on other animals.

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Photo courtesy of Greg Latza/For The HSUS

Donald Trump’s newly-announced Agricultural Advisory Committee is a veritable rogues gallery of anti-animal crusaders. The group boasts a wealthy funder of an anti-animal super PAC, politicians who sponsored state “ag-gag” measures and opposed the most modest animal welfare bills, and leaders of the factory farming industry. It’s an unmistakable signal from the Trump campaign that he will be an opponent of animal welfare—a show of overt hostility toward the cause of animal protection that raises serious concerns for the humane movement about a potential Trump administration.

One member of the committee is Forrest Lucas, the money man behind the so-called Protect the Harvest, a front group devoted to fighting animal welfare organizations at every turn, on everything. A peevish advocate of trophy hunting, puppy mills, and big agribusiness, Lucas has never met a case of animal exploitation he wouldn’t defend. He and his group opposed efforts to establish felony-level penalties for malicious cruelty against dogs, cats, and horses; set standards for the care of dogs in large-scale commercial puppy mills; and even promote the spaying and neutering of pets, and provide adequate shelter for dogs to protect them from the elements. He put hundreds of thousands of dollars into fighting an anti-puppy mill ballot measure in Missouri, he formed a super PAC specifically to defeat animal advocates, and started a film company to produce fictional dramas on animal issues with an ideological bent. He may be the leading anti-animal advocate in the United States, and he’s got a front row seat in the Trump administration.

Former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is also among the names announced by the campaign, and he brings a track record as one of the nation’s most ardent anti-animal welfare governors. Heineman vetoed a bill to stop the trophy hunting of mountain lions—even though the state legislature had acted on the killing of these inedible wild cats. He’s also been a horrid demagogue in defending factory farming, saying that he was going to “kick HSUS’s ass” out of the state and unapologetically defending battery cages and gestation crates.

Then there’s Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the first governor in the United States to sign an ag-gag measure into law. Designed to shield agribusiness interests from public scrutiny by punishing whistleblowers, ag-gag bills give factory farmers unbridled and unchecked power over worker safety, public health, and animal welfare.

Also on Trump’s council is former Iowa state Rep. Annette Sweeney, the lawmaker who conceived of and originally introduced this troubling affront to free speech. Branstad and Heineman both signed on to the federal lawsuit to invalidate California’s law restricting the sale of eggs from barren battery cages—fortunately, they lost that lawsuit in court.

Recent reports suggest that Iowa factory farming mogul Bruce Rastetter may be Trump’s leading candidate for Secretary of Agriculture, so his inclusion on the council is unsurprising. Rastetter has made a fortune off the kind of industrial agricultural practices that family farmers and animal advocates have fought for decades, and was connected to Trump through New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had vetoed a state ban on cruel pig gestation crates in a sop to Iowa’s pork industry. Considering the fact Rastetter’s brother is CEO of a company that builds gestation crates, we have good reason to be concerned about the potential for crony capitalist dealings in a Trump administration.

Also included in this gathering of the biggest anti-animal welfare names is Texas state agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, who called Meatless Mondays “treasonous.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces the federal laws on humane slaughter, animal fighting, horse soring, and animal care at thousands of puppy mills, research laboratories, circuses, roadside zoos, and other facilities. Over the last few years, the agency has taken steps to prevent the slaughter of downer cows and veal calves; fortify the enforcement of the Horse Protection Act; ban imports of puppies from foreign puppy mills and require licensing and inspection of Internet puppy sellers; improve disaster planning for animals; and restrict public contact and exhibition of tiger cubs.

Just imagine a concentration of anti-animal hardliners in the next administration unwinding so much of that progress, repealing dozens of Obama administration rulemaking actions for animals, and giving the keys of the USDA to the most vitriolic, extreme voices in animal welfare. It’s a frightening thought, and animal advocates should be asking this question in the months ahead: Would a Trump administration oppose humane-minded reforms and side with fringe interests over the values of mainstream Americans when it comes to animal welfare rules and enforcement? Given the membership of this council, he’s charted a path directly to that goal.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Trumps stump for the Walter Palmer vote

Donald Trump’s sons reportedly took a break from their roles as their father’s surrogates in the hotly contested presidential election last week to pursue their most favored leisure activity: killing wild animals in far off places for their heads and hides, including the rarest species in the world. 

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Photo by Vanessa Mignon

It wasn’t their first time out, as Donald Jr. and Eric Trump have made no secret of their predilection for trophy hunting, and Donald Jr. especially has been organizing outreach to sportsmen for the campaign. The brothers were chastised by the media for a series of gruesome photographs documenting their kills, which included a leopard, Cape buffalo, waterbuck, and other exotic creatures. Donald. Jr. even held up the tail of an African elephant he’d killed.

It’s unclear what species are in their crosshairs on this latest hunting trip. Bloomberg reported that the Trumps’ hunting party was headed to Yukon, while an Instagram post by Donald Jr. was geotagged “Yellowknife Airport” in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Whatever the exact details of the excursion, these are areas that offer all kinds of guided trophy hunts of grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, Dall sheep, caribou, and other creatures. It’s the kind of place wealthy Safari Club International members might go in search of some awards for the record book, such as the “North American 29,” the “Predators of the World,” or the “Bears of the World.” 

When animal activists interrupted a Hillary Clinton rally last week in Las Vegas as an attention-getting action—even though there was no specific grievance against her—Clinton responded nimbly, noting, “Apparently these people are here to protest Trump because Trump and his kids have killed a lot of animals.” That’s an image that could hurt Trump with mainstream voters, especially independents and Republican women. The lifestyle the Trump sons are living—spending tens of thousands hopscotching the planet to amass heads and hides of the rarest and most majestic animals on earth—is more on par with the type of killing done by Walter Palmer (the wealthy dentist who shot Cecil the lion) than it is with rank-and-file sportsmen or conservationists.

In defense of their recreational pursuits, the Trumps and their lot trot out the same tired arguments about hunting and conservation that trophy hunters have been employing for decades. But times have changed, and nations all around the world are beginning to understand the economic value of keeping animals in the wild rather than offering them up to the highest bidders for shooting and stuffing.

In 1977, Kenya banned sport hunting to preserve ecotourism. In 2012, Costa Rica did the same, followed by Botswana in 2014. These decisions are well-founded in economic analysis. A 2012 impact study of nine African countries found that ecotourism brought in 56 times more money than trophy hunting. A congressional report released this year found little evidence that the money spent by trophy hunters is actually being used for conservation, mostly due to government corruption, lax enforcement, a lack of transparency, and poorly managed wildlife programs.

After all, Cecil was a famous lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park where he lived with his family—a pride of female lions and their cubs. His magnificent, awe-inspiring presence was enjoyed by thousands of visitors. His death was enjoyed by only one person. But what is the value of living Cecils—whether they are lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, or any of the other animals sought by big-game hunters—as compared to the value of dead specimens? An American dentist paid $55,000 to shoot Cecil, but it’s estimated that a living Cecil would have generated nearly $1 million in tourism over his lifetime.

This isn’t about picking on the family of a presidential candidate. The candidate has these two men at the center of communications and strategy for the campaign. They are his surrogates, meeting with officials of the NRA, Safari Club International, and other trophy hunting interests. In the wake of Cecil’s killing, a nationwide survey by HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll showed that 86 percent of Americans disapprove of big-game hunting. The Trumps should pay attention to these figures when they return from the hunting trail to the campaign trail. 

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

No political pay-off for anti-wolf Michigan state senator

The Michigan state legislature’s leading anti-animal politician—a zealous crusader for the trophy hunting and trapping of wolves and a serial exaggerator about wolf encounters in the Upper Peninsula—lost by a substantial margin in a Republican primary for the U.S. House seat in the state’s northernmost congressional district.

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iStock Photo

State Sen. Tom Casperson, of Escanaba, received only 32 percent of the vote in the 1st congressional district, the state’s largest and most rural. The victor, retired Lt. General Jack Bergman, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, ran and won his first campaign with 38 percent of the vote in what could only be considered a political upset. Bergman, who also defeated state Sen. Jason Allen in the contest, will go on to face Democrat Lon Johnson in the general election.

Casperson had been at the center of a jarring MLive 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 wolf population. He exemplified demagoguery at its worst, using half-truths, falsehoods, and distortion to advance policy decisions, and trying to cover up the mistakes he and his colleagues made by denying Michigan voters the opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

He was the author of a state measure urging Congress to remove wolves from protected status under the Endangered Species Act, and pushed through 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.”

The fact is, Casperson lobbied the federal government to take away wolves’ protection under the Endangered Species Act, as a prelude to his own legislative action to execute a state wolf hunting program. Specifically, once those federal protections were out of the way, Casperson led the legislature to pass a state bill during the lame-duck session to make the wolf a game species, again using exaggerated numbers about wolf depredation derived 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, Casperson authored and the legislature passed a second law to give 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.

After being exposed for his fictional account about wolves at a daycare center, Casperson took to the floor of the state Senate and apologized to his colleagues and to voters, acknowledging, “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.”

Voters saw through the charade, and rejected both the wolf hunting proposal and the measure to transfer decision-making authority to the politically appointed and unelected Natural Resources Commission—both bills sponsored by Casperson and referred to the ballot by voter referendum—by wide margins. Proposal 2 was defeated in 69 of Michigan’s 83 counties, losing by a statewide vote of 64 to 36 percent, and losing by majorities in more than half the counties of the 1st congressional district.

Even in the part of the state where Casperson thought he had the most support, voters said no to the trophy hunting of wolves and said no to this power grab by politicians to take away their voting rights. They understood that there are fewer than 650 wolves in Michigan and that the law already allowed the killing of wolves when they threatened livestock, pets, or human safety. They knew that responsible hunters eat what they kill, and nobody eats wolves. They knew the use of painful steel-jawed leghold traps, hunting over bait, and even using packs of dogs to chase down and kill wolves all could have been in store if Casperson had his way and the Natural Resources Commission was given the unilateral power to decide on these cruel methods without any checks and balances from voters.

Michigan voters said no to the scare tactics, myths, and downright fibbing about wolves. And last night they said no to sending the state’s leading wolf hunting booster to Washington.

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