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February 2014

Friday, February 28, 2014

Sore Losers: A Bill for the Horse Soring Crowd


Twh-inspectionMomentum is growing in Congress to pass H.R. 1518/S. 1406, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, legislation seeking to upgrade the four-decades-old federal Horse Protection Act (HPA) to stop rampant and intentional injuring of horses with caustic chemicals and other painful devices in the Tennessee Walking Horse show world in order to induce an exaggerated gait.  HSLF and HSUS are backing the bill, along with more than 100 horse industry and veterinary organizations and many others. Introduced by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., the legislation has the bipartisan support of 266 House cosponsors and 48 Senate cosponsors. Not many bills in Congress ever amass so many cosponsors – a solid majority of the Congress. 

 But rather than halt their criminal conduct within their industry and support efforts to strengthen the law so that it will serve as a meaningful deterrent to people who torment horses to win ribbons at shows, some in the horse soring community have worked with a handful of lawmakers to try to maintain the status quo.  Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., this week introduced “alternative” legislation to the PAST Act that can be described as nothing but a get-out-of-jail-free card to those who perpetrate the cruel practice of soring. 

Not only does H.R. 4098 contain none of the important reforms needed to crack down on soring, but it would set back these efforts by weakening the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s already-limited authority and handing off power to the perpetrators.  Unlike the PAST Act, Rep. Blackburn’s bill does nothing to strengthen the weak penalties that have failed to act as a deterrent to soring, and would continue to allow the use of chains, stacks, and other action devices that cause pain to horses’ legs and hooves—identified by the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Equine Practitioners as an integral part of the soring process.  

As acknowledged by the USDA Office of Inspector General’s 2010 audit of the Horse Protection Program, the corrupt self-regulation of the industry is the key factor that has allowed the abuse to fester and thrive in the Big Lick show circuit: Blackburn’s bill perpetuates—and in fact, codifies—this arrangement.  H.R. 4098 would eliminate the few Horse Industry Organizations (HIOs) now trying to end soring (allowing only sound horses at their shows), and institute instead a single HIO born right out of the same groups that have let soring run rampant for decades.  The bill allows the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association to help select the board of the “new” HIO: the same association whose 2014 seven-member board of directors’ boasts at least 112 citations for soring and related offenses.  One of those members has 38 known citations for violation of the Horse Protection Act.  Soring is never going to stop when the sorers are in charge of enforcement; that’s why the PAST Act gives the USDA the authority it needs to license, train, assign, and oversee independent inspectors. 

Blackburn’s bill completely fails to address the stacked shoes and chains, even though 93% of violations of the Horse Protection Act involve Big Lick horses who are subjected to these devices.  The chains exacerbate the effects of chemical soring by striking and rubbing on sensitized pasterns, and stacks unnaturally alter the angle of the foot and can be used to conceal foreign objects—all to cause enough pain to create the desired high step.  The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners have called for the elimination of stacks and chains from the Big Lick show ring as a prerequisite to ending soring.  The PAST Act bans them; this so-called alternative doesn’t even mention them. 

H.R. 4098 is another thinly disguised effort to codify the failed industry self-policing scheme that has allowed soring to continue unabated.  The answer to this problem, backed by an unusually broad and diverse group of horse industry, veterinary, and animal welfare organizations, as well as more than half the House and nearly half the Senate, is to pass the PAST Act, H.R. 1518/S. 1406. Contact your members of Congress today and tell them this real reform legislation is sorely needed.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Last Gaff of the Cockfighting Lobby

Cockfighting has been illegal in Kentucky since 1893. But a group of active cockfighters in the state are still trying to hold onto the last vestiges of this cruel and criminal practice, deservedly on its last gasp. 

As Sam Youngman and Janet Patton reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday, the cockfighters are upset with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others who voted for the Farm Bill, because it includes a provision making it a federal crime to attend or bring a child to an animal fight.  That provision is the latest in a series of measures that fill the gaps in the legal framework focusing on cockfighting, and provide law enforcement officials with the tools needed to crack down on staged animal combat across the country.

Photo by Kathy Milani/HSUS

With such anemic laws in Kentucky, the cockfighters are pretty brazen in their efforts to defend a practice banned for more than a century.  Incrediblytheir spokesperson stated, “When you make a law like that you take good taxpaying people and you turn them into criminals overnight. The grassroots on this are not playing games anymore. They’ve been beaten and battered for 30 years. They’re rural people. They want to be left alone.” One might say they are already operating like organized criminals.

This man needs a lesson not just in ethics but in history. It was not too long ago that cockfighting was still legal in a handful of states, with dozens of open-air pits, some of them the size of high-school football stadiums with concession stands, and millions of birds with razor-sharp knives strapped to their legs, forced to hack each other to death for entertainment and gambling. The conventional wisdom among some politicians, in a few states, was that you couldn’t go against the cockfighters, who supposedly had a stronghold of a voting bloc in some rural regions.

But that conventional wisdom was turned on its head when voters overwhelmingly approved statewide ballot measures to ban cockfighting in Arizona and Missouri in 1998 and in Oklahoma in 2002. Not long afterwards, a poll ind Louisiana, one of the last cockfighting holdouts, revealed that 82 percent of voters wanted it banned. When animal advocates exposed the pro-cockfighting positions of Chris John, the Democratic candidate for Louisiana’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2004, a large number of Democratic women who couldn’t stomach animal cruelty crossed party lines to vote for the Republican candidate, helping to send David Vitter to the Senate.

Now dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states, cockfighting is banned in all 50 and a felony in 40, and both are felonies under federal law,and there’s a firm social and political consensus on the issue. The latest upgrade to the federal law—to punish the spectators who finance the fights with their admission fees and gambling wagers and provide cover to animal fighters who blend into the crowds during law enforcement raids—passed the U.S. Senate three times before being folded into the final Farm Bill package. In the Senate, where any single lawmaker can slow down or derail a piece of legislation, the animal fighting provision was virtually a non-issue. It was cosponsored by dozens of Republicans and Democrats, and endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and more than 300 individual sheriffs and law enforcement agencies. The only people on the other side? Illegal animal fighters.

There’s still a small and active group of cockfighters out there, but the politicians have left them behind, as society itself has done. Now, they are flocking to the remaining few states with weak misdemeanor penalties where they hope they can get away with a slap on the wrist, while the window is surely closing upon them. Sen. Mitch McConnell and other lawmakers targeted by cockfighters have nothing to fear, squarely on the side of law enforcement and humane treatment as they clearly are, and firmly against organized criminal activity and animal cruelty, as they should be. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Wolf Delisting Not Based on “Best Available Science”

In every region of the country where federal protections for wolves have been lifted, the states have moved quickly to open sport hunting seasons. From the Northern Rockies to the Great Lakes, trophy hunters and trappers have killed more than 2,000 wolves, often by using cruel and indiscriminate steel-jawed leghold traps.  In Wisconsin, the states even allow dogs to chase down by packs of hounds, in what amounts to wolf-dog fighting.

Gray wolf pups
Photo by Radius Images/Alamy

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist wolves in the remainder of the lower 48 states (with the exception of about 75 wild Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico) would compound the problem and further put this keystone species in peril. Fortunately, on Friday, an independent, peer-review panel gave a thumbs-down to the proposal, unanimously concluding that it “does not currently represent the ‘best available science.’”

The agency was right to convene an independent panel of distinguished experts in wolf genetics, to debate the question of whether enough was known to take protected status away from wolves throughout most their range. More than one million people have submitted comments on the proposal, and the public has a strong interest in wolf management. The scientists disagreed with the government’s idea of a separate “eastern wolf” population in the Midwest and Northeast, which would have made wolf recovery in those states unnecessary; one of the conservation geneticists said the agency’s “driving goal seemed to be to identify the eastern wolf as a separate species, and to use that taxonomic revision to delist the gray wolf.”

Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee, has called on the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw the current delisting proposal in light of the peer-review panel’s findings. We hope the agency will also rescind its December 2011 rule delisting wolves in the Great Lakes region, which was based on the exact same dubious taxonomic claims criticized by the peer-review panel.

The executive branch should adhere to the best science on this issue, and not allow politics to drive the decision-making to transfer authority to states with dangerous and regressive wolf management policies. Instead of hoping for the best from a patchwork of state authorities subject to varying degrees of political power exerted by ranching and hunting interests, the federal government should be driving the nation toward full recovery of wolves.  The last thing wolves need is a further expansion of reckless and inhumane and ecologically detrimental hunting and trapping programs.

In Michigan, where wolves have already been delisted, the legislature made an end-run around the voters and circumvented a pending ballot measure to rush through the first hunting season in which 23 wolves were killed this winter. Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is gathering signatures to place a second measure on the ballot, to restore the rights of Michigan voters to have a say on wildlife policy, and has just a few weeks left before the signature deadline. If you live in Michigan, or live outside the state and would like to support that effort, please visit

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Egg Lawsuit is All Cracked Up

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court challenging California’s law requiring that eggs sold in the Golden State come from hens that can turn around and stretch their wings. It seems that Koster—at the cost of state taxpayers—is trying to force Missouri’s sub-standard products on California consumers, even though the California legislature has declared such products to be repugnant to the values of its citizens and a threat to public health.  It’s a shameless sop to Big Agribusiness on Koster’s part.

States have long had the right to pass laws protecting the moral views, health and safety of their own residents. Whether it’s setting requirements for the sale of fire-proof cigarettes, the testing of livestock infected with brucellosis or tuberculosis, firewood infested with termites, or eggs from hens confined in cruel, barren battery cages that are more likely to carry Salmonella. Koster’s suit is a courtroom resurrection of the failed King amendment, and if successful, could threaten state laws across the country dealing with animal cruelty, agriculture and food safety—including his own state’s laws on the labeling of seeds and weeds, the sale of adulterated commercial feed, the health of hogs and milk products entering the state, and labeling and container sterilization for the sale of alcohol.

Koster’s gambit is also the latest in a series of lawsuits trying to roll back California’s basic standards for the humane treatment of farm animals, rather than respect California consumers’ right to determine what they want. Opponents of Prop 2 in California have already lost three challenges to the law, with one federal court stating that it “does not require the investigative acumen of Columbo” to apply the standards. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected a very similar challenge to California’s ban on the sale of foie gras from force-fed birds, holding that it was well within the state’s broad authority to enact humane laws and prevent animal cruelty.

When California’s legislature passed the law now being challenged, it explained in the findings, “According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Production, food animals that are treated well and provided with at least minimum accommodation of their natural behaviors and physical needs are healthier and safer for human consumption.” Iowa, the largest egg producing state, was home to a Salmonella outbreak in 2010, resulting in more than 1,000 people being sickened across the country and prompting the recall of a half-billion eggs. There have been nearly 20 studies published in recent years comparing caged and cage-free egg operations, and almost all found significantly higher rates of Salmonella in the caged facilities.

Why should California be forced to buy products that are unsafe and inhumane? Missouri producers can and should sell into California, as long as they adhere to reasonable production standards that are consistent with California’s law, in this case designed to protect its citizens’ objection to needless animal cruelty and to protect the health and safety of the state’s consumers. California’s production standard  is workable for farmers, and it’s time for producers in Missouri and elsewhere to improve their operations and move the economy forward rather than continuously try to slow it down with court challenges.

If Koster doesn’t like differing state laws on egg production, the answer is not a race to the bottom: A more reasonable and rational approach is to pass the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments, S. 820 and H.R. 1731, to phase in, over an ample time period, a uniform national standard for the housing and treatment of laying hens. The egg industry wants to move away from extreme confinement practices, and needs federal legislation to do that in an orderly way. We hope Koster will join us, and the U.S. egg industry, in lobbying Congress to pass the bill. 

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