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February 2013

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Horsemeat Scandal Illustrates Need for Federal Action

A food scandal has rocked Europe, where products labeled as beef—everything from frozen lasagna to Swedish meatballs—have tested positive for horsemeat. But it’s not just in Europe where government officials should take notice; the controversy affects the United States, too. More than 100,000 American horses are killed each year for their meat, and the main market for this product is Europe.

Former racehorses, carriage horses, family ponies, and other equines are scooped up at auctions by predatory “killer buyers,” who often outbid horse rescue groups and families that want to give the horses a new, loving home. The majestic creatures are crammed tightly into cattle trucks, and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to slaughter plants across the border in Canada or Mexico.

HorsesThey are butchered, shrink-wrapped, and air-freighted to Belgium, France, Italy, or other countries. It’s a grisly end for an American icon. And it’s generally reserved for the strongest, healthiest horses, with the most meat on their bones to fetch the most profit—not the sick and homeless as the horse slaughter boosters would have us believe.
Stopping the cruelty of long-distance transport and slaughter of our cherished companions should be enough to spur action. But there’s another major reason our lawmakers should act: We are dumping unsafe and contaminated horsemeat on European dinner plates and supermarket shelves.
The European Union forbids imports of American chicken because the carcasses are bathed in chlorine, and bans pork imports because American producers treat the animals with ractopomine. But tens of thousands of drugged-up American horses are entering the marketplace, even though they are routinely given medicines throughout their lives not intended for human consumption.

Clenbuterol, a bronchodilator with anabolic steroid properties, and Phenylbutazone, known as bute or horse aspirin, are among many commonly prescribed medications for treating ailing or lame horses—but banned for use in animals slaughtered for human consumption. The U.S. has no system in place to track the medications that are given to horses over their lifetimes, and therefore, there’s no reliable way to remove horses from the food chain once they have been given prohibited substances. It’s no surprise that bute was found last summer in horsemeat shipped from Canada to Belgium, and continues to turn up in random testing.

While horse slaughter apologists such as those in the Oklahoma legislature are rallying for a return to equine abattoirs on U.S. soil, it’s becoming uncertain whether they will have any remaining markets to sell their product—especially if the European Union decides to crack down on sales of horsemeat from North America in light of the recent scandal.

It’s time for the U.S. Congress to take a hard look at the serious and far-reaching food safety concerns associated with slaughtering American horses. Lawmakers should reintroduce federal legislation to prevent the slaughter and export of our horses for human consumption, and send a message that the global trade of U.S. horsemeat is simply unsuitable for the dinner table.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Global Protections Needed for Polar Bears and Sharks

When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) gathers next month in Thailand, more than 170 member nations will consider a number of important proposals to protect imperiled species. One such measure proposed by the United States and backed by Russia—two of the five nations with polar bear populations—would “uplist” the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I, thereby banning the international commercial trade in polar bear skins and other parts and products.

The very survival of these majestic animals is at stake.

PolarbearsThe polar bear is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and faces extraordinary pressures, including melting ice, trophy hunting, and pollution. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the polar bear as vulnerable based on a projected population reduction of more than 30 percent within three generations (45 years) due to a decrease in distribution and habitat quality. The threats are so grave that a recent analysis even suggests polar bears may have to be fed by humans in order to survive.

Despite declining populations, hundreds of polar bears are shot every year in Canada and their body parts, including skins, teeth and claws, are then bought and sold on the open international market. The CITES listing, if adopted, will stop these majestic creatures from being killed for international commercial trade. A similar proposal was rejected by CITES in 2010, and at the time, the 27 countries in the European Union voted as a bloc against it. But now the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries are strongly backing the measure, which may signal increased support from the EU and more hope on the horizon for the polar bear’s survival. 

We are especially grateful to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for leading this effort, and we call on other nations to join the U.S., Russia, and others in advocating for stronger global polar bear protections.

The United States also joined with Colombia and Brazil on a proposal to regulate international trade of oceanic whitetip sharks. This species was once common in all oceans but has been depleted mainly due to high demand for its large, distinctive, easily identifiable white-tipped fins for shark fin soup. These sharks are often caught as bycatch by tuna fishing vessels. The high value of their fins and low value of their meat means they are commonly finned when caught (throwing their mutilated live bodies back in the water), even though they are known to have relatively good rates of survival when caught and released intact.

Studies estimate that between 220,000 and 1,210,000 oceanic whitetip sharks were traded globally in 2000, representing about 2 percent by weight of the global fin trade. The IUCN lists them as critically endangered in the Atlantic ocean and vulnerable globally. Regulation of international trade would provide an important tool for preventing finning and depletion of these sharks.

We applaud the United States for once again taking a leadership role in protecting sharks from the fin trade, and we thank Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., for sponsoring a Capitol Hill briefing on shark finning and advocating for the protection of the oceanic whitetip and other sharks. American citizens should be proud that their government officials are fighting for the protection of rare species across the world. Our colleagues from The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International will be attending the CITES meeting next month, and will keep you posted on these proposals with dispatches from the field.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Federal Trapper Arrested for Animal Cruelty

The USDA’s Wildlife Services program—established more than 80 years ago with the passage of the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931—wastes millions of taxpayer dollars recklessly killing animals with steel-jawed leghold traps, toxic poisons, aerial gunning, and other hideous lethal methods every year. Several former USDA-Wildlife Services employees and whistleblowers have described the agency’s deeply rooted culture of disregard for animals, and for these reasons, have long suspected that some federal trappers may be committing crimes against animals while performing work-related duties. They’ve never been caught in the act, until now.


Last week, we learned that authorities in El Mirage, Ariz., arrested USDA-Wildlife Services trapper Russell Files on charges of cruelty to animals after he admitted to intentionally setting traps to capture a neighbor’s two-year old Australian cattle dog named Zoey. Authorities found Zoey struggling to free her paws in two steel-jawed leghold traps when they arrived on Files’ property after receiving a 911 call from a good Samaritan.

“I was pretty shocked,” said El Mirage Police Department detective Kim Walden in an article reported by Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee, who has penned a series of investigative reports on Wildlife Services. “There are different kinds of animal abuse. This kind, because I have not seen trapping and what it does to an animal, ranks up there with one of the worst I’ve seen.”

When officers arrived on the scene, they found Zoey covered in blood and in desperate need of medical attention. The veterinarian who treated Zoey claimed that she lost 17 teeth trying to chew her way out of the traps and suffered severe injuries to her mouth and jaw. As a result, the dog will have to undergo extensive surgery and dental work in order to eat normally again. 

If the allegations are true, Mr. Files acted with malice and intended to inflict unnecessary suffering on his neighbor’s dog, and all at federal taxpayers’ expense since he admitted to investigators that he was on duty when he set the traps that injured Zoey. This extraordinarily reckless and callous act is indefensible and must not go unpunished, but what’s more concerning is that this is the second time in less than six months that a USDA-Wildlife Services trapper has been caught up in controversy around the treatment of animals. 

In October 2012, authorities discovered photos taken by USDA-Wildlife Services trapper Jamie Paul Olson which appears to show Olson’s dogs attacking and killing a coyote restrained in a steel-jawed leghold trap set by Olson as part of a taxpayer-funded predator control operation in Wyoming. The photos posted on Mr. Olson’s Facebook page appear to show a frightened coyote screaming and fighting desperately to escape from a trap while Olson’s dogs ripped and pulled the defenseless animal’s body apart from limb to limb. If these allegations are true, then Mr. Olson intentionally subjected this coyote to a long, excruciating, and terrifying death for his own personal amusement—and all on the government dime.

USDA officials are still investigating the Olson incident and have already promised to investigate this most recent incident involving Russell Files. But clearly, more needs to be done to turn around the culture of this outdated program, and they shouldn’t wait until these investigations have been completed to do so. It’s time for a top-to-bottom assessment of the Wildlife Services program and some immediate policy changes that will prevent these types of incidents from ever occurring in the first place. USDA should audit Wildlife Services, especially its lethal predator control program and take a hard look within the agency at the culture and use of inhumane lethal methods for predator control. It’s time for the agency to shift the focus of its resources to nonlethal alternatives and it should start by phasing out the use of two highly toxic and indiscriminate predator poisons: compound 1080 and sodium cyanide. 

U.S. Reps. John Campbell, R-Calif., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., have sent a letter to USDA requesting that the Office of Inspector General audit Wildlife Services. As Rep. Campbell told the Sacramento Bee after the latest incident, “We continue to see more and more acts of cruelty coming from this clearly out-of-control, mismanaged and misdirected department.” It’s time for a change.

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