Animal Rights

In Wake of Chimp Attack, U.S. Looks to Limit Exotic Pet Trade

| by The Humane Society

The federal government took two major steps today—one congressional and one regulatory—to protect wild animals from cruelty and abuse. It’s an example of how both the legislative and executive branches of government have a meaningful role to play when it comes to animal welfare and conservation.

First, after about 40 minutes of debate yesterday afternoon, the House of Representatives today passed H.R. 80, the Captive Primate Safety Act, by a vote of 323 to 95. Introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the bill seeks to ban the interstate commerce in primates for the exotic pet trade. The need for this reform became even more urgent and apparent last week when a pet chimpanzee named Travis critically mauled and disfigured a woman in Stamford, Conn., and the bill was moved to the House floor quickly thanks to the work of Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam).

The Stamford attack was hardly unique, as there are 15,000 captive primates in the U.S., and these wild animals—some of whom have the strength of several adult men—can bite, scratch, and spread diseases. Just because irresponsible people bring them into their homes, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to place the rest of the community at risk. It’s shocking that several dozen lawmakers would vote against a common-sense public safety measure, since there’s no organized opposition like the NRA or agribusiness—just a few unscrupulous dealers and brokers who sell dangerous primates over the Internet and at auctions to misguided people who want to believe a chimpanzee in a tutu is a hairy child.

Some obstructionist lawmakers did oppose it, however, and Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) even mocked the issue on the House floor. It’s the job of the states, they say, not the federal government, to worry about the safety of citizens and protecting people from “monkey bites.” Chairwoman Bordallo argued in favor of the bill, pointing out that Travis was sold from Missouri to Connecticut and only the federal government can regulate interstate commerce. Rep. Blumenauer forcefully challenged the critics, telling them, “I would respectfully note that having your face ripped off is not the same as an animal bite. We are dealing with animals that have the potential of inflicting serious damage and death.”

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Thanks to the House leadership and all the Democratic and Republican lawmakers who voted for the Captive Primate Safety Act, this important policy reform is one step closer to passage. It now goes to the Senate, where Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) are leading the effort to get it over the finish line and sent to President Obama’s desk.

When Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, it barred the import of parts from whales, dolphins, seals, polar bears, and other marine mammals, and also prohibited the sport hunting of polar bears—the Alaskan population—within our own borders. The Safari Club International, however, along with former Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Jack Fields (R-Tex.), punched a loophole right through the law in 1994, and allowed trophy hunters to start bringing home the spoils from their high-priced commercial polar bear hunts in Canada—allowing nearly 1,000 polar bears to be killed to adorn American trophy hunters’ collections over the last 15 years.

It’s been a priority for HSUS and HSLF to close this loophole and restore the polar bear import ban, and during the last Congress, the Senate approved an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill—led by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)—to stop the imports of polar bear trophies. The House rejected a similar amendment by Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), and then the language was dropped from the final spending bill. But when the Department of Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species last year, that action closed the door to trophy imports, essentially a de facto restoration of the ban that had been in place for two decades.

In trying to skirt the new rules and apply for import permits, a group of trophy hunters argued—with a straight face, mind you—that shooting polar bears would help save the species. Several of these applicants are listed in Safari Club International’s “Record Book of Trophy Animals”—a grisly chronicle of their bloodlust to shoot the largest and rarest animals around the world. One man alone has at least 195 animals listed, including rare, endangered, and exotic species, such as an African elephant, an African lion, a critically endangered Père David’s deer, an endangered yak, and a scimitar-horned oryx, listed as extinct in the wild. At least 40 of the animals were shot on captive hunting ranches. The Safari Club offers a special “Bears of the World” award that requires a hunter to kill at least five different bear species around the globe, and these gentlemen may have been hoping to get one of the last polar bears before they run out.

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Allowing the shooting of scimitar-horned oryx at captive hunting ranches isn't saving that species, and shooting polar bears won’t help those animals either. We’re grateful to the Obama Administration for rejecting the Orwellian argument that we can only save rare and declining polar bear populations by shooting them, which would have been a potentially disastrous misinterpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The lawmakers and law implementers both did their jobs well today, and their actions will have a lasting impact for polar bears, primates, and public safety.

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