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Friday, May 23, 2008

Farm Bill is a Boon to Animal Protection

It was a hectic week in Congress leading up to the Memorial Day recess. The House voted 316 to 108 and the Senate voted 82 to 13 this week to override President Bush’s veto of the massive Farm Bill.  The bill was not without its controversy, and there was even an inadvertent error in omitting 34 pages of the bill, which the Congress will have to remedy after the break ends.

But it was a huge week for animals, without much fanfare. Tucked away in the enormous Farm Bill, which sets agricultural policy for the next five years, are three of the most important animal welfare reforms that Congress is likely to pass this year. They now become law, and usher in major changes for animal protection.

Pit_bull_2 One provision strengthens the federal law against dogfighting and cockfighting, and builds on the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act which was enacted last year. The new measure upgrades the federal penalties for animal fighting from three years to five years in prison. Importantly, it makes it a federal felony to possess and train fighting animals, and allows federal prosecutions of animal fighting rings regardless of whether those particular animals moved in interstate commerce.

It’s essentially a national ban on animal fighting and it holds the cast of characters accountable who abuse these animals and turn them into  murderous fighting machines. It brings us one step closer to eradicating dogfighting and cockfighting in America, and that’s a goal that can’t be achieved soon enough. Thanks to Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Representatives Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) who introduced and pushed for these provisions.

Another measure will crack down on foreign puppy mills by barring the import of young, unweaned puppies for commercial sale at pet stores and over the Internet. Thousands of young puppies are treated like a cash crop in China, Russia, Mexico, and other countries, where they are raised in filthy cages, stacked on top of each other, with no socialization or human interaction. They endure harsh, long-distance, air transport to the United States, exposed to extreme temperatures and often freezing to death in airplane cargo holds or arriving sick and diseased.

There are plenty of dogs available in the United States—with nearly four million pets euthanized each year because there are not enough homes for them all, we don't need puppy millers adding to this tragic overpopulation.  The new law stops the import of puppies younger than six months old, and will curb the worst abuses in this emerging industry. It was introduced and pushed over the finish line by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Representatives Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), and Terry Everett (R-Ala.), and we will next work to introduce further legislation to protect dogs in puppy mills here in the United States. 

Animal_research And finally, the Farm Bill upgrades penalties for violations of the Animal Welfare Act—which haven’t changed in more than twenty years—by quadrupling the potential fine from $2,500 to $10,000. Research laboratories, puppy mills, circuses, zoos, and other industries that use animals have largely been asked to self-regulate because enforcement is minimal. Now, the penalties will provide a more meaningful deterrent against abuse, and will no longer be considered just a cost of doing business. Thanks to Representatives Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) for advancing this reform to put teeth in our nation’s cornerstone animal protection statute.

It may not seem obvious at first that the Farm Bill would be such an important vehicle for animal protection. But because the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and other humane treatment laws, the Farm Bill is a unique opportunity to improve our nation’s animal protection policies and toughen the penalties for those who engage in cruelty and abuse. In fact, it was the 2002 Farm Bill that closed a loophole in the federal animal fighting law and stopped the interstate and foreign shipment of birds for cockfighting, including slamming the door shut on American cockfighters who bring birds to and from countries and territories where cockfighting is still legal.

We were disappointed that House and Senate negotiators dumped a provision to ban Class B dealers—who traffic in random-source dogs and cats, including stolen pets, and sell them to research—and also that the members of the Agriculture Committee did not address some of the fundamental problems with industrialized agriculture.  But there's no question that we picked up some major gains for animals in this legislation.  And when you add in the Bush Administration's actions during the past week to list polar bears as a "threatened" species (putting a stop to the import of sport-hunted polar bears by American trophy hunters) and to close a loophole in the law that allows some "downer" cows to be slaughtered for human consumption, it was quite a week in policy making for animals.

We are grateful to the Agriculture Committee leaders—House Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Ranking Member Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Senate Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)—for making animal welfare part of the Farm Bill agenda. And we extend  a special thanks to the Judiciary Committee leaders, House Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Senate Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for their tremendous assistance in assuring that the upgrade of the animal fighting law was as strong and sweeping as it is.


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