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April 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Politics of Cockfighting and Horse Slaughter

Tonight, WAVE 3 News in Louisville is airing an exclusive story, for which reporter John Boel went undercover with a hidden camera at a recent pro-cockfighting rally. The investigative report asks the question, “What did Kentucky politicians really promise to cockfighters?” and focuses on GOP Senate candidate Matt Bevin’s appearance at that rally, raising questions about his statements that he didn’t know the purpose of the event was to promote the legalization of cockfighting.

Photo by KRGV

In the weeks since the story broke, Bevin has said that cockfighting is a “states’ rights” issue, and even that it’s “part of a tradition and a heritage that go back for hundreds of years and were very integral early on in this country.” But the organizers of the event had promoted it as a rally to legalize cockfighting in Kentucky. If it’s a state issue, and the state currently bans cockfighting, does Bevin support or oppose that anti-crime and anti-cruelty law? The hidden-camera video obtained by WAVE 3 News should shed some light on the situation.

Manu Raju of Politico reported yesterday that Bevin’s Republican primary opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, has released a new statewide radio ad attacking Bevin on the cockfighting issue. The ad lampoons Bevin for attending the pro-cockfighting event, and for “making national headlines, but not in a good way.” The primary is May 20th, and it’s just more evidence that the political winds are blowing against the small but vocal group of people who unlawfully force animals into staged combat, and that politicians have nothing to gain by associating with these organized criminals.

An important animal welfare issue is coming up in another GOP statewide primary race, too, this one in Texas. Brittney Martin of the Dallas Morning News reported that in the race for state agriculture commissioner, Republican Tommy Merritt has sent a mailer to primary voters drawing attention to rival Sid Miller’s efforts to legalize horse slaughter. When both candidates served in the Texas legislature, Miller introduced bills seeking to repeal the state’s ban on the sale of horsemeat for human consumption.

“I voted against the bill [in 2003] and on the side of the horses and the people who love animals,” Merritt said. “It’s very clear to me that he has total disrespect for the animals.”

An American horse waiting in a pen to be taken to slaughter

Texas, along with Illinois, was the last place in the U.S. to have active equine abattoirs, which were shuttered in 2007 when Congress banned the use of tax dollars to inspect and certify horsemeat for human consumption. A number of plants have tried unsuccessfully to open since that time, but most people don’t want their community to be known as the one that killed Trigger and Mr. Ed, just to serve up horse meat as a delicacy to foreign gourmands in Belgium and Japan.  

It’s clear that animal issues are becoming a larger part of our civic and political discourse, and mainstream voters stand on the side of decency, opposition to cruelty, and the rule of law. No party or candidate, whether Democrat or Republican, should defend animal cruelty without understanding the political consequences. When candidates court the cockfighting crowd or the horse slaughter profiteers, they’re taking a bigger political risk than they ever imagined.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Incredible Scam to Kill Inedible Wolves

There is more fallout from the Michigan wolf hunt scandal, in which state legislators relied on and trafficked in exaggerated and even fabricated stories about wolf incidents as they went about authorizing a hunt on the state’s small population of wolves. Nearly two-thirds of all wolf incidents in the Upper Peninsula occurred on a single farm, where the individual farmer baited wolves with cattle and deer carcasses. As John Barnes of reported yesterday, that farmer, John Koski, has agreed to plead guilty to charges of neglecting the guard donkeys provided to him by the state and funded by Michigan taxpayers. Two of the donkeys starved to death and a third was removed due to neglect.

Photo of wolves playing by John Hyde

As Barnes noted, “Koski received nearly $33,000 in cattle-loss compensation from the state. Taxpayers also footed the bill for more than $200,000 in staff time and other measures to assist the farm against wolf attacks, documents obtained by show.” So here we have one farmer who pocketed tens of thousands of dollars, refused to use the fencing provided by the state, allowed guard donkeys to starve to death, and lured wolves to his property with a free buffet of rotting corpses. This was the poster child for Michigan’s “need” for a wolf hunt.

Politicians and state officials continue to point to wolf depredation statistics in the Upper Peninsula to justify their decision to open a wolf hunting season for the first time in four decades. But if Koski’s self-inflicted wolf incidents were removed from the statewide numbers, the true picture of wolf conflicts is miniscule at best. It’s one more example of state officials cooking the case against wolves: lawmakers and DNR staff have admitted that stories they told of wolves stalking daycare centers and staring at people through glass doors were false and never happened.

After voters demanded a say on the issue, state legislators went out of their way to end-run the people, handing off the decision on wolf hunting to seven, unelected members of the Natural Resources Commission whose collective opinion was in line with the state legislature’s view. These seven individuals are political appointees, and not accountable to voters. The sole scientist on the commission proved to be the only dissenting vote against their plan to open a trophy hunting season for wolves.

Photo by MacNeill Lyons/National Park Service/AP

It is reckless to allow trophy hunters to kill wolves from the small, still recovering population of only about 650 wolves in Michigan. Hunters aren’t targeting problem wolves, but randomly killing animals in national forests and other wilderness areas. In fact, it’s already legal to kill problem wolves in the rare instances when livestock, pets, or human safety are or may be perceived to be at risk. This system works and allows for selective control of wolves causing any problems.

Wolves are an economic and ecological boon to the state, promoting tourism to the Upper Peninsula and checking the growth of abundant deer populations. Wolves help maintain a healthy deer population and cull weak and sick animals, preventing the spread of dangerous diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease. Wolves also lower the risk of deer-auto collisions and depredations on crops. This can save humans lives and tens of millions of dollars for the state.

Responsible hunters eat what they kill, and because wolves are inedible, most hunters have no interest in killing them. Responsible hunters also don’t go for the use of painful steel-jawed leghold traps, hunting over bait, and even using packs of dogs to chase down and kill wolves—and all of that may be in store if the Natural Resources Commission decides to allow these cruel methods.

Koski’s plea agreement provides one more example of why Michigan’s wolf hunt is based on a pack of lies. The politicians and state officials apparently cannot be trusted, but the voters can. Join Keep Michigan Wolves Protected to help set things right and stop this abuse of power.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Key Senators Step Up to Pass PAST Act

A horse at the National Celebration in Shelbyville in 2013, one of many wearing chains and stacks. Contact your member of Congress today and ask them to pass the PAST act.

The Senate Commerce Committee today approved, by a unanimous voice vote, S. 1406, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., has 51 cosponsors and is now ready for consideration by the full Senate. Its companion, H.R. 1518, by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has 269 cosponsors in the House. We are grateful to all these leaders for their work to move the PAST Act forward, and to Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Ranking Member John Thune, R-S.D., and Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., for their support in today’s committee markup.

For over half a century, Tennessee Walking Horses  have been victims of the cruel practice of “soring”—where trainers burn chemicals into the horses’ legs or injure their hooves, causing pain and forcing a high-stepping show gait. It’s already a federal crime, as Congress passed the Horse Protection Act in 1970 to end it, but the 44-year-old law is too weak and desperately in need of a upgrade to deal with a faction of the industry intent on skirting the law. Some trainers have spent their ca­reers “soring” horses, evading detection, and avoiding consequenc­es. The stigma of soring is killing this breed. That’s why the American Horse Council, American Association of Equine Practi­tioners, American Veterinary Medical Association, all 50 state vet­erinary medical associations, and many major horse industry groups support the PAST Act to strengthen the law and stop these animal abusers.

Some segments of the horse soring crowd have tried to breed confusion in recent weeks, by having “competing” bills introduced by their allies, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But this Big Lick faction of the Tennessee Walking Horse world has had over 40 years to clean up their act and fix this problem. They haven’t done it. They’ve just gotten more sophisticated at inflicting pain on their horses, covering up the abuse, and working the political process to prevent anyone from getting in their way. The opponents of the PAST Act don’t represent the entire industry, but just those who are already breaking federal law, cheating to win prizes, committing terrible acts of cruelty and profiting from it.

They claim that horse soring is an exceedingly small problem and they have it all under control with their industry self-policing, trotting out various numbers to portray a high rate of compliance with the Horse Protection Act. But they’ve cooked those numbers using deeply flawed methodology. First, they count only violations found by their own inspectors—not those found by USDA when it does spot inspections. The USDA Office of Inspector General made clear in a 2010 audit that there’s a huge discrepancy between the rate of violations identified by the industry-selected inspectors and those by USDA inspectors, and the industry-selected inspectors are grossly undercounting violations due to conflicts of interest. According to the agency, 85 percent of the violations cited in 2013 were found at the small number of shows (around 20 percent) that USDA attended. Second, they mix in horses of all classes, instead of discussing the compliance rate among the horses actually affected by the PAST Act—the Big Lick horses. Big Lick horses account for the overwhelming majority of violations—according to USDA, they made up 94.2 percent of all violations in 2013 and 74 percent of horses randomly tested at shows attended by USDA during 2010-2013 had been treated with soring or numbing agents. 

These “competing” bills were designed simply to impede the reforms recommended by the OIG audit and incorporated into the PAST Act. They would codify the status quo of industry self-policing, actually making it worse by strengthening the hand of the bad actors who need oversight. They won’t do anything to eliminate the use of devices that the veterinary community has said are absolutely integral to the practice of soring. And they won’t strengthen penalties to provide a meaningful deterrent. 

As the Chattanooga Times Free Press said in an editorial, these alternative bills represent “a thinly disguised repeat of what hasn't been working to stop the abuse for decades” and are “serving to slow support for a new day and the cleaner, kinder display of a beautiful Tennessee icon.” Tell your members of Congress to pass the PAST Act to finally bring an end to the indefensible cruelty of soring.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Foot-in-Mouth Disease Strikes Kentucky Senate candidate

GOP Senate candidate Matt Bevin has offered a number of excuses, since news broke that he attended a rally organized to promote the legalization of cockfighting in Kentucky. He said he’s “never been to a cockfight, don’t condone cockfighting,” but stopped short of saying unequivocally that he opposes animal fighting or that he supports the enforcement of anti-cockfighting laws. Bevin also said he “doesn’t believe this is a federal issue, and the state government can handle it.” But the cockfighters at the event were advocating for the repeal of the state’s anti-cockfighting statute. The point of the rally was to overturn Kentucky’s weak law against cockfighting, so how does Bevin’s invoking states’ rights clarify his participation at the event? 

His latest claim is that animal fighting is an American tradition. “But it’s interesting when you look at cockfighting and dogfighting as well,” Bevin told Louisville’s WHAS News Radio. “This isn’t something new, it wasn’t invented in Kentucky, for example. I mean the Founding Fathers were all many of them very actively involved in this and always have been. These are things that are part of a tradition and a heritage that go back for hundreds of years and were very integral early on in this country. ”

Photo by KRGV

Very integral?  Hardly.  While the cockfighters would have us believe there were fighting pits at Mount Vernon and Monticello, there is no historical evidence to support claims that the Founding Fathers were involved in animal fighting. There is evidence, however, that they actively sought to root out the cruelty, which they saw as frivolous and detracting from the seriousness of the Revolutionary War effort. The First Continental Congress passed legislation in 1774 to “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of games, cock fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”

Since that time, all 50 states have banned dogfighting and cockfighting, with dogfighting a felony in all 50 and cockfighting now a felony in 41. The members of the organized criminal network of cockfighters flock to the remaining states, like Kentucky, with anemic misdemeanor penalties, hoping that law enforcement will look the other way. They bring with them the associated activities of drugs, prostitution, and other crimes. It’s an underworld enterprise, and it’s still such a problem that the U.S. Congress has seen fit to upgrade the federal law against animal fighting four times since 2002, closing loopholes that cockfighters try to sneak through.

State legislatures around the country, too, are working to fortify their animal fighting statutes. Louisiana, the last state in the union to prohibit cockfighting, is now considering a bill to strengthen the law by upgrading the penalties and banning the possession of knives, gaffs, and other cockfighting weapons. It appears that Matt Bevin isn’t the only politician who is confused about cockfighting: Although the legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and is headed to the Senate floor for a vote, Louisiana State Sen. Elbert Guillory, of Opelousas, said the bill interferes with “a legitimate sport known as chicken boxing.”

Whether some politicians invoke “chicken boxing,” “states’ rights,” or “American tradition,” these words amount to code for some form of decriminalization, so that cockfighters can still pursue their hobby without penalty.  The fact is, there’s no moral or rational justification for strapping razor-sharp knives and icepick-like gaffs to the legs of birds, throwing them into a pit and forcing them to hack each other to pieces, just for the entertainment of spectators who gamble on the fights and are titillated by the violence and bloodletting. There’s a difference between “liberty” and “license” and the cockfighters don’t seem to understand it.  Now, in Kentucky, there’s a politician who doesn’t either.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Kentucky’s Bevin Courts Cockfighting Vote

Politicians running for statewide office are known to show up at festivals, parades, county fairs, diners, a variety of commemorations, and even funerals. But it takes a very special kind of candidate to be a featured speaker at a  cockfighting rally, of all places.

That’s what U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin did, when he attended an event Saturday organized to promote the legalization of cockfighting in Kentucky. Bevin, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky’s Republican primary, said he didn’t know it was a cockfighting event, and his campaign told the Louisville Courier-Journal it was “a state’s rights rally.”

But it’s hard to imagine anyone accidentally stumbling into a cockfighting meet-up. Even the event’s organizers said there was “never any ambiguity” about why they were rallying, which was to advocate for making cockfighting legal. In fact, here are some of the ads promoting the event, which were circulated through pro-cockfighting Facebook pages and web sites:  Flyerforrally2


There’s no hidden purpose here: Organized criminals want to repeal Kentucky’s already weak anti-cockfighting statute. We have plenty of evidence that they are brazenly breaking the law, strapping razor-sharp knives and icepick-like gaffs to the legs of roosters, throwing them into a pit and forcing them to hack each other to pieces—just so they can shout out bets and be titillated by the violence and bloodletting.

Bevin’s claims about not knowing ring hollow, as he is now parroting the language of anyone who defends animal cruelty but masks their true intent by speaking of “states’ rights.” His campaign spokesperson told the Lexington Herald-Leader his position on cockfighting: “Matt doesn’t believe this is a federal issue, and the state government can handle it.”

The fact is, both the federal government and the states have a big role to play in cracking down on this form of intentional, malicious cruelty to animals. A substantial share of dogfights and cockfights involve interstate transport of the animals and parties from multiple states. There are also instances where due to corruption, lack of resources or lack of interest, local agencies refuse to prosecute large-scale animal fighting rings. Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation was prosecuted by federal authorities when the local commonwealth attorney refused to take action. In the absence of a federal animal fighting law, which Matt Bevin apparently opposes, the Michael Vick case would never have moved forward. 

All 50 states now ban cockfighting, and it’s a felony in 41, though it’s still a misdemeanor in Kentucky. It’s now moved to an underworld enterprise, but it’s still such a problem that the Congress has seen fit to upgrade the federal law against animal fighting four times since 2002, closing loopholes that cockfighters try to sneak through. 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.

Bevin’s primary opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, rightly voted for the animal fighting spectatorship amendment that made it into the final Farm Bill. That legislation was cosponsored by dozens of Republicans and Democrats, and endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and more than 300 individual sheriffs and police departments across the country, as well as veterinary, animal welfare, and other groups. The only people on the other side? Illegal animal fighters.

There’s still a small and active group of cockfighters out there, but most politicians have left them behind, as society itself has done. Now, they are flocking to the remaining few states with weak misdemeanor penalties, like Kentucky, where they hope they can get away with a slap on the wrist, while the window is surely closing upon them. Matt Bevin showed appalling judgment in associating himself with this band of lawbreakers and perpetrators of unspeakable animal cruelty.  He’s brought discredit upon the state of Kentucky, and he should withdraw from the Senate race.

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