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Obama Gets "B" Grade for Animal Protection

By Wayne Pacelle

“I was down in the Everglades, and it took four people to hold a 19-foot Burmese python,” said Tom Strickland, a top official at the Department of the Interior, in Sunday’s The New York Times. “These things wreak havoc.”

The Times reports that owners and sellers of large, dangerous exotic snakes are livid with the Obama Administration proposal to ban the interstate transport and import of nine species of snakes, including Burmese pythons and green anacondas. Snake owners have mounted a campaign to turn around the agency’s decision, but the federal government has it exactly right on this subject. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is animal welfare, it makes no good sense for people to keep these giant constricting snakes as pets.

While the Obama Administration has made some adverse moves on animal protection – pushing for the de-listing of endangered wolves in the Northern Rockies and Upper Great Lakes, continuing with large-scale round-ups of wild horses in the West, and buying up surplus meat from factory farms – it has established a strong overall record on animal protection. For 2010, I rate the Obama Administration a solid B for its performance on our concerns – an improvement over 2009’s B minus. The Administration is moving in the right direction on many issues, and has opportunities in 2011 to really step up and turn around long-standing federal programs that have wasted tax dollars and caused enormous animal suffering in the process.

Progress for Animal Protection

Within the last month, President Obama has signed three animal protection bills into law: the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act, the Truth in Fur Labeling Act and the Shark Conservation Act (to strengthen laws against finning). In terms of executive agency actions, the Administration has taken some positive action on 42 items related to our 100-point “Change Agenda for Animals.”

At the end of December, the USDA announced several new actions to improve oversight of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, including the establishment of an Ombudsman in the Office of Food Safety and stronger rules on handling downer animals.  

USDA has also agreed to take steps to close loopholes in the regulation of transport of horses to slaughter, banning the shipment of horses in double-decker trucks and prohibiting transport by individuals with outstanding fines from previous violations. In addition, USDA requested increased funding for enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, which forbids the “soring” of horses in Walking Horse shows, and outlined its plans to toughen rules in order to curb this cruel practice.

USDA also announced tougher enforcement rules on commercial puppy mills, and expressed support for covering large-scale direct sellers of dogs under the Animal Welfare Act.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced it would suspend its plans to transfer nearly 200 chimps from safekeeping at Alamogordo Primate Facility in central New Mexico, instead of sending them into possible invasive research again at Southwest National Primate Research Center in Texas. The EPA has begun phase two of its ToxCast program and continued its involvement in the Tox21 partnership, together with two National Institutes of Health subsidiaries and the Food and Drug Administration, to develop ways to more effectively predict how chemicals affect human health and the environment, reducing the current reliance on animal testing.

The EPA has also continued to press forward on regulatory efforts to address global warming from major sources, including factory farms, given Congress’s failure to enact comprehensive legislation on climate change.

Gains for Wildlife

In 2010, the Interior Department designated more than 187,000 square miles of on-shore barrier islands, denning areas and offshore sea-ice as critical habitat for the threatened polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. It also issued emergency rulemaking to expand federal protection areas for manatees in Citrus County, Fla., creating a refuge that includes all of Kings Bay in Crystal River. The Obama Administration also took positive actions on a raft of other species, including penguins, prairie dogs, turtles, tigers, bats and other species at risk.

The Department of Justice issued a final rule prohibiting wild animals from being used as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While the Bureau of Land Management has continued to round up wild horses and amass enormous numbers of animals in holding facilities, the agency has also pledged to employ fertility control for horses in 11 herds. Last week, BLM director Robert Abbey reiterated the agency’s firm opposition to slaughter or mass euthanasia of wild horses.

The EPA also removed the “restricted use” classification for OvoControl P, birth control for use in pigeons, and its actions prompted the manufacturer of the avicide Avitrol to stop production of this poison – both good steps in advancing humane population management.

Room for Improvement

The Administration’s efforts to de-list wolves, and pave the way for sport hunting programs in some states that might reduce wolf populations by 80 percent, have been deeply distressing to animal advocates across the nation. HSUS has blocked these de-listing efforts in the courts in a series of legal actions, and has partnered with other animal protection and conservation groups to stop recent efforts in Congress to strip wolves of protection.

The Administration has a mixed record where the stakes are highest on global conservation debates at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The Administration proposed to protect sharks and polar bears, but also submitted a proposal to remove protections for bobcats from the international fur trade in the former body, and fronted a proposal at the IWC that would have relaxed the 1982 ban on commercial whaling.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration continues to spend precious tax dollars on too much lethal predator control, through USDA’s outmoded Wildlife Services program, especially the use of two highly toxic poisons – Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide – that not only kill coyotes and other predators as a subsidy for private ranchers, but also kill other non-target animals such as family pets and endangered species. For example, it has expanded a government-funded killing scheme for Canada geese. Especially during this time of belt-tightening, this entire program needs to change to one that offers non-lethal assistance to those experiencing wildlife conflicts, and conducts lethal control only as a last resort.

Another area ripe for cost savings is the buy-up of surplus commodities. The USDA purchases hundreds of millions of dollars of surplus commodities as a de facto subsidy to factory farming interests that encourages over-production and dumps some of the worst meat on our National School Lunch Program, such as chicken from “spent” hens in too sorry shape for even the fast food industry to buy. That’s precisely the wrong response – USDA should be rewarding farmers who do the right thing and raise animals in high welfare systems that don’t involve intensive confinement, overuse of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, and contamination of air and water.

In the year ahead, the subsidies for animal abuse have to stop, and the Administration needs to continue to step up its enforcement efforts. It made good progress on which to build in 2011. There are millions of animal lovers in America, and they will be paying close attention to our government’s record on animal issues in the domestic and international arenas.


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