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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Next Ag Secretary has a big role to play on animal welfare

The cabinet post with perhaps the most relevance for animal welfare within the incoming administration was one of the last to be filled—with former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue getting the nod from President-elect Donald Trump as the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture.

Pigs-hslf-istock-shaun-lowe-blog
Shaun Lowe/iStock

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a major role not only on agricultural policy, but also in the enforcement and implementation of key animal protection laws, including the Animal Welfare Act, which provides oversight for millions of animals at more than 10,000 sites (including puppy mills and other commercial breeding facilities, laboratories, roadside zoos, and circuses); the Horse Protection Act, which deals with cruel soring of Tennessee walking horses (deliberately injuring horses’ legs and hooves to achieve an artificial high-stepping, pain-based gait to win prizes); the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act; and the federal animal fighting law.

What do we have in the way of insights about Sonny Perdue’s record on animal welfare? As governor, he signed a law in 2008 strongly backed by The HSUS and HSLF to make dogfighting a felony and close loopholes on owning fighting dogs and being a dogfighting spectator. "I am pleased today to make it clear that dogfighting is an activity that we will not tolerate here in Georgia," said Perdue in signing the bill.

Perdue is a licensed veterinarian, who graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, and a few years ago volunteered his time to perform a surgery at the Atlanta Humane Society to raise awareness for the spaying and neutering of pets and a special dog and cat license plate that supports Georgia’s statewide spay and neuter program. "I'm here today to help the Humane Society call attention to the serious problem we have in Georgia with the overpopulation of cats and dogs," said the then-governor. "We need to encourage pet owners to be responsible so that we don't have unwanted animals finding their way to shelters and having to be euthanized."

In 2010, Perdue also signed a bill banning the use of gas chambers to euthanize shelter pets.

In recent weeks, a number of players within Big Ag have championed his appointment. As governor, Perdue signed a pro-agribusiness bill to preempt local ordinances related to agriculture, and similar effort could be advanced at the federal level to block states and local communities from having a say on agriculture policy. Certainly, we hope that Secretary Perdue will stand up for states’ rights and local decision-making authority.

Georgia is the top state for production of broiler chickens (those raised for meat) and is also home to the United Egg Producers. Perdue is undoubtedly familiar with these issues, and with the trends in these industries, including the fact that, increasingly, American consumers have higher expectations for animal welfare. Most of the major egg producers are transitioning toward cage-free production, and some of the biggest brand names in the world of chicken production—such as Perdue (no relation to the designee)—are moving toward slower-growing birds to prevent their immense suffering and implementing other reforms. The next Secretary of Agriculture can play a role in helping the marketplace transition to higher welfare practices. The ground has shifted on these issues not just among consumers, but even among so many producers. We hope that Governor Perdue sheds the old canards about agriculture and brings the balance that consumers expect and that so many food businesses have already committed to honor.

The incoming administration is reportedly working on plans to cut the size of government. If cost-cutters are looking to downsize the USDA, we have some suggestions: The agency’s Wildlife Services program is an outdated and inefficient model of lethal predator control, essentially operating as a government subsidy for private ranchers, and wasting millions of dollars each year killing wolves, mountain lions, bears, and other wildlife with cruel methods such as poisoning, aerial gunning, and steel-jawed leghold traps.

The USDA can also stop the multi-million dollar subsidies for big pork and other factory farm products, and let the free market take the place of government hand-outs. It can rein in the National Pork Board, which is funneling check-off dollars—a tax paid by every pig farmer supposedly for marketing efforts—to a D.C. lobbying group. The $60 million boondoggle has come under fire from conservative Sen. Jeff Flake, who writes, "In a very unusual deal, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is bringing home the bacon from a government sponsored board for the sale of the slogan ‘The Other White Meat,’ which was put out to pasture years ago." Flake notes that the "deal guarantees payments to a lobbying organization over two decades" for a slogan that is no longer even being used. You could not find a stronger example of crony capitalism taking advantage of government benefits.

In recent years, the USDA has been responsible for progress on a number of animal welfare issues, including banning the slaughter of downer cows and veal calves who can’t stand up or walk on their own, strengthening enforcement of the Horse Protection Act to crack down on illegal soring, setting animal welfare standards for the organics industry, strengthening the care of captive marine mammals, and working to address problems with puppy mills, Class B dealers, and tiger cub petting operations. We urge the incoming Secretary of Agriculture to continue the progress on these issues and make animal welfare a priority for the agency. If he wants to "drain the swamp," he’ll have to resist the polarizers and the provocateurs who want to fight old battles, settled already in so many states and even in the business community.

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