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November 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Talking Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving week, and millions of American families are talking turkey as they prepare for their holiday meals. But they probably haven’t thought much about how 250 million American turkeys get from farm to table each year (at least not since Sarah Palin’s photo op last Thanksgiving of a turkey being slaughtered on camera).

A federal appeals court, however, has been contemplating the issue, and last week issued a ruling that affects not only hundreds of millions of turkeys but also nine billion chickens slaughtered for food each year. These birds are typically shackled and hung upside down, paralyzed by electrified water, and dragged over mechanical throat-cutting blades—all while conscious. Many birds each year miss the blades and drown in tanks of scalding water.

Currently, billions of chickens and turkeys do not have the
basic protection of being rendered insensible to pain prior to
shackling and slaughter.

It’s all because the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently exempts birds from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the milestone federal law requiring that farm animals be rendered insensible to pain before they’re shackled and cut. Although Congress mandated humane slaughter for all “livestock” in 1958, the USDA’s interpretation of this half-century old law provides no protection for 99 percent of all food animals.

The Humane Society of the United States had joined forces with two poultry slaughterhouse worker advocacy groups and several consumers to challenge USDA’s exclusion of poultry from the protections afforded by the humane slaughter law. Slaughtering conscious birds is not only inhumane, but also presents serious risks for food safety and slaughterhouse workers who handle the flailing animals.

A federal district court ruled last year that USDA properly excluded chickens, ducks, and other farm-raised birds from the law. The court found the term “livestock” itself to be broad enough to encompass poultry, but nevertheless held that a muddled legislative record from 1958 showed Congress’ intent to exclude poultry. This despite one member of the House reading into the official congressional record a 1958 dictionary definition making clear poultry are indeed livestock.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision last week, but without reaching the merits of the case. The court noted that, when the law was enacted, USDA itself considered “chicken eggs, commercial broilers, chickens, and turkeys” as “livestock and livestock products.” The court also observed that “congressional debate revealed views favoring both interpretations advanced here—one that would include chickens, turkeys and other domestic fowl within its expanse and one that would preclude such inclusiveness.”

However, the court declined to express any opinion on this critical legal question, finding instead that the courts have no jurisdiction to decide on this issue at all. According to the court, because even a favorable ruling would require additional, voluntary action by USDA to enforce the act, the plaintiffs cannot sue to plug this gaping loophole in the nation’s humane slaughter laws.

The court questioned “why Congress had not done something ‘clear and definitive’” to address this loophole, and also observed that Congress has already given the Secretary of Agriculture a “grant of authority…to include whatever additional ‘species of livestock’ he or she ‘consider[s] appropriate’ within the scope of the humane slaughter requirements.”

In fact, Congress has not only given USDA the authority to act, but has also asked the agency to examine this very issue: In the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2008, Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) directed the USDA to study “controlled atmosphere stunning,” a method that, when done using a proper mix of gases, provides a more humane death by rendering birds unconscious before they’re shackled, let alone cut. It can also yield higher productivity for slaughter plants, such as fewer broken bones in the meat as animals aren’t struggling, and fewer workplace injuries for the staff.

By overturning the lower court decision endorsing USDA’s exclusion of poultry, the court has cleared the way for USDA and Congress to finally do “something clear and definitive” to ensure that billions of chickens and turkeys have the basic protection of being rendered insensible to pain prior to shackling and slaughter. It’s now time for Congress and USDA to act—and to finally give birds a more merciful end in the years and Thanksgivings ahead.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Protecting Predators of the Sky and Sea

Congress made advances this week on two major conservation bills to protect predators of the sky and the sea. The measures cleared important committees with bipartisan support, and if enacted into law will greatly enhance law enforcement efforts to crack down on cruelty to sharks and raptors.

A House committee approved H.R. 2062, the Migratory Bird
Treaty Penalty and Enforcement Act, to strengthen the
penalties for intentionally killing federally protected birds.

First, the House Natural Resources Committee yesterday unanimously approved H.R. 2062, the Migratory Bird Treaty Penalty and Enforcement Act, legislation by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to strengthen the penalties for intentionally killing federally protected birds. I wrote in July about one of the most shocking and sickening scourges of bird-related crime in recent years, in which members of “roller pigeon clubs” deliberately killed peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks, and red-tailed hawks by shooting, trapping, poisoning, clubbing, baiting birds into glass panels, and even baiting birds with pigeons rigged with fishing hooks. The club members had no fear of meaningful penalties and even boasted of their crime spree on public web sites.

DeFazio’s legislation will give federal prosecutors and wildlife law enforcement agents the option to pursue hefty fines and prison sentences against serial bird killers. We are grateful to Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) for advancing this important conservation and anti-crime legislation to put teeth in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and we urge the full House to pass it swiftly. We also expect a Senate version of the bill to be introduced soon.

A Senate committee passed S. 850, the Shark Conservation
Act, to increase protection for sharks from the cruel and
wasteful practice of shark finning.

Second, the Senate Commerce Committee today passed S. 850, the Shark Conservation Act, legislation by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to increase protection for sharks from the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning—cutting the fins off a shark and tossing the mutilated animal back into the ocean to die. Investigative reporter George Knapp at KLAS-TV just did an eye-opening exposé about the booming international trade in shark fins and the ready availability of shark fin soup at Las Vegas hotels and restaurants. Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, and there has been a dramatic decline in some shark species worldwide.

Shark finning is already banned, but there is a loophole in the current law allowing a ship to transport fins that were obtained illegally as long as the sharks were not finned aboard that vessel. The Kerry bill—along with H.R. 81 by Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) which has already passed the full House—would require that sharks are landed with their fins still attached, the only sure way to prevent large-scale finning at sea.

There had been talk of amendments to exempt a certain species of shark, the smooth dogfish on the Atlantic coast, which would have complicated law enforcement efforts and potentially harmed imperiled species such as the sandbar shark which look similar to the smooth dogfish. We are grateful to Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and the full Commerce Committee for passing a strong shark protection bill without any weakening amendments, and we urge the full Senate to approve the measure.

Some reforms are so evident that there really is not a debate in society about the right course of action. Who could possibly think that poisoning or clubbing birds of prey to prevent any chance encounter with trained pigeons, or leaving sharks to suffocate and bleed to death without their fins for a little taste of soup, is an appropriate way to treat these creatures? Let’s hope Congress takes action soon and gets these critical measures over the finish line.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Talk Back: Wolves, Wags, and Warming

Today I’d like to share some of your comments in reaction to my recent blog entries. We received many comments in response to my post regarding the killing of Yellowstone’s most celebrated wolves:

I am so saddened by this. I have visited Yellowstone three times and was so happy when wolves were reintroduced. —Mary R.
This is so upsetting. Where is the common sense? This is what put them on the endangered species list in the first place, and now they will probably have to be put back on it, just to save them again. I'm so angry about this. What can we as American citizens do about this? —Karomy H.
How disgusting. Sarah Palin's slaughter of wolves from the air and on the ground was sickening and now our government killing innocent, helpless wolves in Yellowstone Park. Will we never learn that we have to co-exist with the rest of nature or simply wipe each away a step at a time? —Katherine N.

I enjoyed interviewing the winner of HSLF’s first-ever “There Oughta Be a Law” contest. Her concept will create a tax credit for spaying and neutering pets to help curb pet overpopulation and euthanasia:

This is awesome. I would be ecstatic if this bill passed! —Sandra D.

We also received feedback to the hostile maneuver by Congress giving another free pass to factory farms and putting a major roadblock in the way of efforts to combat global warming:

Agribiz cooked this highly deceptive strategy up because they know that the results of the simple reporting will be a revelation that would force every clear-headed citizen to drive "every American farmer out of business." —Louche
What discouraging news. Thank you for your work and for this exposé. —Alex

Thank you all for submitting these comments, and please keep the feedback coming. If you have a question or comment and would like to join the conversation, please send me an email. Thanks for all you do for animals.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Hunting ethics require sportsmen to do their best to assure a quick kill, and make every possible effort to find wounded animals to spare them prolonged suffering. says a true hunter will “search for an arrow hit or bullet hit animal that is wounded for as long as possible.” Those who follow the NRA Hunter’s Code of Ethics pledge to “do my best to acquire those marksmanship and hunting skills, which insure clean, sportsmanlike kills.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty apparently had neither the skill nor the time to be a true hunter. He badly wounded a buck on Saturday at the Minnesota Governor’s Deer Opener, but rather than follow the blood trail, he followed the money trail to Iowa where he was headlining a Republican Party fundraiser. The owner of the land where Pawlenty’s group was hunting described the animal as “bleeding profusely” and searched for the deer all weekend, but turned up nothing.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty failed to abide by basic hunting
values during his hunt this past weekend.

It’s surely a sign of reckless and unsportsmanlike behavior to leave an animal severely injured and hope that others might take on the responsibility to end the animal’s suffering. If Pawlenty wants to hunt animals, he should at least have the decency to abide by basic, centuries-old values. Hunters talk a good game about ethics and humane treatment, and they should be held to their own professed standards.

Pawlenty was the same governor, of course, who enacted legislation in 2004 to allow Minnesota’s first mourning dove hunting season in 58 years. Mourning doves don’t cause nuisance problems, aren’t overpopulated, and don’t make a viable food source—that’s why they were protected as songbirds for more than a half-century in Minnesota and are still protected in many northern and Midwestern states. When they’re shot for target practice, the small birds are riddled with lead shot and are of little value to hunters, so about 30 percent of those hit are left wounded and unretrieved—a fact apparently untroubling to the state’s chief executive hunter. 

When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was on the Republican ticket in the 2008 presidential campaign, she galvanized animal advocates against the aerial gunning of wolves and her retrograde wildlife management policies. If Pawlenty decides to launch a presidential bid for 2012, we’ll give his behavior the scrutiny it deserves.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Safeguarding Our Canine Heroes

On Veterans Day, we remember the dedicated men and women who have served our country. But we also shouldn’t forget man’s best friend, who serves faithfully alongside our troops, helping to safeguard military bases and activities, detect bombs and explosives before they inflict harm, and perform other lifesaving duties.

On Veterans Day, we should also honor our canine
heroes who serve faithfully alongside our troops.

The Humane Society of the United States and its global arm, Humane Society International, have just purchased special cooling vests and pads for military dogs serving in Afghanistan—where temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Dogs don’t sweat like humans do, and the heat exhaustion has killed several dogs in Afghanistan this year. They also endure the problem of rancid pet food which spoils quickly in the heat.

Major Donna DeBonis, the 993rd Medical Detachment officer in charge of the veterinary treatment facility in Kandahar, reached out to HSUS and HSI to get much-needed help in combating heat exhaustion and making the working environment as safe as possible for military canines. The animal protection groups purchased the special vests and pads to cool down these hot dogs, and FedEx generously offered to ship them for free to Afghanistan.

The donated vests will help keep the dogs cool by absorbing excess heat from their bodies, allowing them to better regulate their own body temperature. The vests contain a place for inserts that, once charged in ice and water, can reach a temperature of 50 degrees, enabling the dogs to keep working safely for hours without the health risks associated from overheating. The pads will enable dog handlers to carry food with them and avoid spoilage, and will also serve as cool resting pads for dogs to lie on in the backs of vehicles during convoys and mounted patrols.

When I think of Lex, the German shepherd who was injured in a mortar attack in Fallujah, Iraq, and had to be pulled away whimpering from his slain human partner, Marine Corporal Dustin Jerome Lee, I know how important these dogs are to the military and to the men and women who work side-by-side with them. It’s only fitting that we can honor these canine heroes and celebrate the human-animal bond by doing better to safeguard them while they serve our country.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Return to Sender: Stamping Out Cockfighting Magazines

It’s been a year of one-two punches against the industry in our battle to knock out cockfighting. Two states—Arkansas and Kansas—passed laws to make cockfighting a felony, and other states enacted tougher penalties. HSUS and HSLF are on the march in the remaining states where cockfighting is still treated like a parking violation, and we have a bold agenda to pass felony laws in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and other states in the nation's “cockfighting corridor.”

South Carolina still has one of the weakest anti-cockfighting statutes, but this week, 21 people in the Palmetto State were indicted for violating the federal animal fighting law, which HSUS and HSLF have worked to upgrade repeatedly in recent years. The crackdown on the state’s cockfighting rings couldn’t come soon enough: At one fight, an undercover officer witnessed a 13-year-old boy checking to see if a rooster was still able to fight, and later the animal was killed by swinging it against a tree.

Until recently, and the U.S. Postal Service were 
supporting the sale of illegal cockfighting magazines, such as 
“The Feathered Warrior” and “Gamecock.”

There was another major milestone this week when HSUS settled longstanding litigation with the U.S. Postal Service and over their complicity in the distribution of illegal animal fighting paraphernalia. The case against Amazon started back in 2005, when HSUS informed the giant online retailer that its sale of the notorious cockfighting magazines “The Feathered Warrior” and “Gamecock” violated federal law.

These publications weren’t about cockfighting culture and commentary, but were published for the purpose of peddling cockfighting weapons, fighting birds, and other illegal contraband. Cockfighters could mail-order birds from special bloodlines, as well as the drugs pumped into birds to heighten aggression, and the razor-sharp knives strapped to the birds’ legs to cause the bloodletting. Even though more than 90 percent of the ads in 11 issues of the magazines essentially contained solicitations to commit a crime, Amazon refused to stop selling them. HSUS sued Amazon and included “The Feathered Warrior” and “Gamecock” as co-defendants.

Amazon, however, wasn’t alone in providing comfort to the cockfighting magazines, as the publications found an unlikely ally in the U.S. Postal Service. The Post Office was not only serving as the primary delivery service for these illegal publications, but was actually giving these criminals a special discount rate usually reserved for public interest organizations and nonprofit charities. As a result, HSUS also sued the Postal Service as a companion case to the action against Amazon.

When Congress passed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act in 2007, it made interstate dogfighting and cockfighting activities a federal felony, but also added a newly upgraded provision that “prohibits the websites and the magazines where fighting animals are advertised for sale.” This provided a new tool to urge the Postal Service and Amazon to halt mailing what were essentially mail-order catalogs for illegal cockfighting weapons and fighting birds. At first they still refused to budge, but now, after two long years of litigation, the battle is finally over.

The first big break came last year, when HSUS settled with “Gamecock” and the publisher agreed to remove ads that explicitly promoted cockfighting from its pages and stopped selling the magazines on Amazon. One down, one to go.

Then this summer, the final issue of “The Feathered Warrior” rolled off the presses as the publisher shut down operations for good. It seems that the combined effect of the enhanced federal animal fighting law, stronger state penalties, and litigation against cockfighters had made the buying and selling of cockfighting paraphernalia untenable as a business model.

Next, a third magazine called “Grit & Steel” announced it was going out of business. “Grit & Steel” had not been included in the HSUS lawsuit because its publisher had removed the ads for fighting birds and cockfighting implements. Still, its demise signaled that the cockfighting industry has retreated far enough into its dark corner that it simply can no longer sustain these magazines.

Finally, and only after HSUS won a favorable decision in federal court, the Postal Service got on the bandwagon and announced it will stop delivering magazines containing ads for fighting birds or animal fighting implements. With the Postal Service and Amazon both reforming their ways, two cockfighting magazines closing up shop and a third changing its format, we have gone a long way toward shutting down the illicit trade in fighting birds and weapons.

The fight to stamp out animal fighting marches on, though, and with renewed vigor. Cockfighters will no longer get their contraband delivered through the mail, but the HSUS and HSLF will not rest until holdout cockfighters in every state are delivered nothing but long felony prison sentences.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Get Out the Vote for Animals on Election Day

Voters in two states—New Jersey and Virginia—tomorrow will decide on candidates for statewide elected office, and the Humane Society Legislative Fund is letting animal advocates know that the stakes are high for animals on election day. In the two gubernatorial races, HSLF strongly endorses one Democrat and one Republican who have each demonstrated a career-long commitment to public policies that protect animals from cruelty and abuse.

HSLF endorses Jon Corzine for Governor and Loretta
Weinberg for Lt. Governor in New Jersey.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has been a leader for animal protection, and HSLF urges his reelection. During his first term, Corzine worked with the Department of Environmental Protection to stop the controversial trophy hunting season on the state’s small population of black bears, and instead implemented a comprehensive plan to solve bear problems using humane and non-lethal management strategies. Corzine’s opponent, Chris Christie (R), has indicated his support for bear hunting, demonstrating a clear contrast between the candidates on the state’s most high-profile animal protection issue.

Corzine signed numerous animal protection bills into law, including measures to ban Internet hunting, protect pets in disasters, tax fur clothing, suspend the harvest of horseshoe crabs, and support spaying and neutering of pets. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Corzine’s running mate for Lieutenant Governor, has been a leading champion for animals in the state legislature, introducing bills to ban bear hunting and end the inhumane confinement of veal calves in small crates. A Corzine-Weinberg administration is the best choice for voters who care about the humane treatment of animals.

Bob McDonnell is the strongest
candidate for Virginia Governor.

In Virginia, Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) has demonstrated active leadership to stop animal cruelty and fighting, and HSLF recommends him as the strongest candidate for Virginia Governor. Cockfighting was essentially decriminalized in the commonwealth, until McDonnell made a crackdown on animal fighting part of his legislative agenda. The McDonnell-backed legislation passed in 2008, making cockfighting a felony and banning the possession of fighting animals, and at least five cockfighting rings have been broken up since the new law was enacted. He also joined 25 other Attorneys General in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate a 1999 federal law banning the sale of videos depicting animal cruelty, and when he previously served in the Virginia House of Delegates he supported numerous animal protection bills.

Steve Shannon
HSLF recommends Steve Shannon
for Virginia Attorney General.

The race to replace McDonnell as Attorney General also has strong implications for animals in the commonwealth. State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R) has one of the worst records on animal cruelty in the entire country, and has often stood nearly alone in opposing common-sense and mainstream animal welfare reforms. He was one of only two senators to oppose strong penalties for animal fighting, and one of only three to oppose a measure to protect dogs from abusive puppy mills. It would be a major setback for the commonwealth’s top law enforcement officer to be a person like Cuccinelli who opposed having animal protection laws on the books in the first place. HSLF strongly endorses Del. Steve Shannon (D), whose support for the humane treatment of animals stands in stark contrast to Cuccinelli’s obstinate and extreme views.

Voters in Ohio won’t be deciding on statewide candidates, but will be asked whether to support agribusiness-led Issue 2 on the ballot. Agribusiness interests are trying to change the Ohio constitution so they can continue cruel and inhumane practices on factory farms—confining animals in tiny cages and crates so small they can’t even turn around. While masquerading as an attempt to improve food safety and animal welfare, Issue 2 would give unchecked power to an industry-dominated Livestock Board that would maintain the status quo on how animals are treated. HSLF urges Ohio voters to say “No” to this power grab; other opponents of the measure include the Ohio Farmers Union, Ohio League of Women Voters, local humane societies, and newspapers across the state.

If you live in New Jersey, Virginia, or Ohio, please be sure to vote and stand up for animals in tomorrow’s election.

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