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December 17, 2008

A Look Ahead: Obama's Ag and Interior Chiefs

Today, in his regular blog "Animals & Politics," my colleague Michael Markarian posted a blog well worth reading about today's announcement by President-elect Barack Obama on his latest cabinet selections: former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for Agriculture Secretary and current U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar from Colorado for Interior Secretary. I join in Mike's congratulations to both men on their selections, and say that we very much look forward to working with them.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the next Agriculture Secretary Vilsack was a top choice by The HSUS for the post, and we believe he has the smarts and experience to bring this agency into the 21st century and to confront the enormous challenges that his predecessors have largely sidestepped. But it will be a tough job, and he'll have to steel his spine for the job ahead. Vilsack clearly has the mettle to do this; as Iowa Governor, he vetoed a bill to allow the shooting of mourning doves—an act that has saved more than a million doves from target shooting in the years since and cut against the conventional wisdom about disappointing and defying the NRA and the gun lobby. USDA is a dinosaur, with animal welfare programs an odd fit within an agency that has as its core mission the promotion of agriculture, including the production of animals for meat, egg, and dairy products. USDA leaders, acting in concert with a variety of industries, have largely viewed animals as commodities, rather than living, feeling individuals, and their policies and enforcement actions have reflected that worldview and consistently fallen short of a responsible standard of conduct for years.

As columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last week in The New York Times, the agency should be renamed the Department of Food, and move beyond its traditionally narrow focus as a promoter of agribusiness. It needs to elevate food safety, animal protection, environmental protection, and local, sustainable and organic agriculture, and think about serving 300 million American consumers, rather than just the small number of people involved in corporate agribusiness. Social critic Michael Pollan and others have been making the same points during the past few months.

Our nation needs farmers and a thriving rural economy, and preserving that lifestyle and livelihood is vitally important. But farmers, and the sophisticated ones certainly know this, operate within a society with evolving attitudes toward agriculture, as the passage of Proposition 2 in California indicates. A good yield is not enough—agriculture must pay attention to the wishes of consumers and the norms in society that reflect a concern for the care of animals, the environment, wholesome food, and protection of family farms. The Farm Bill, in its future iterations, should provide farmers with incentives to produce in a way that promotes animal welfare, land preservation, food safety, and nutrition, instead of building the legislation around providing subsidies principally for five major commodities, with most of the money going to producers making more than $250,000 a year. Vilsack will also play a big role in energy policy, since animal agriculture is such an enormous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as both a major consumer and producer of energy.

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, the next Interior Secretary We pledge to work with him, all the while advocating to advance the broad mission of The HSUS.

Sen. Salazar is a widely respected figure in the Senate, built partly on his years of experience as a conservative Democrat with a reputation for reaching out to Republicans. He was not a top choice at Interior for animal advocates, the environmental community, or other significant stakeholders and for that reason alone, his was a surprise choice. As Markarian writes in his blog, Salazar has a mixed record on our issues and, to some degree, on environmental protection. But I think he'll find that strong, progressive action at an agency that's been riddled with corruption and has demonstrated unhindered obedience to the desires of industry during the Bush era will earn him and President-elect Obama the loyalty of the majority of the American public. Americans treasure wildlife and the 700 million acres of public lands. It's an awesome responsibility, and we hope that Salazar will provide inspired leadership worthy of the vision that President-elect Obama has set forth in his policy statements and speeches.

Here is Markarian's blog, as well.

Obama's Animal Welfare Team

President-elect Barack Obama announced two more Cabinet appointments today—perhaps the two most eagerly awaited appointments for animal advocates because of their relevance to the protection of domestic animals and wildlife. We congratulate former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the next Secretary of Agriculture, and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, the next Secretary of the Interior, who were both named earlier today. We also congratulate Lisa Jackson, whose appointment was formally announced earlier in the week to head the Environmental Protection Agency. These three members of Obama’s team together will impact the lives of hundreds of millions of animals.

Vilsack has a solid record on animal protection, and he was the top choice of HSUS and HSLF to lead the USDA, the agency that oversees our federal laws on animal welfare, humane slaughter and transport, horse protection, animal fighting, and others. Nearly 90,000 animal advocates contacted the transition team through our website, expressing how important it was to pick an animal-friendly Agriculture Secretary and recommending Vilsack as an excellent choice. The Obama Administration listened to your views, and this appointment demonstrates what an important voice animal advocates can have as a political constituency.

As governor of Iowa, Vilsack advocated for bills to toughen the state’s penalties for animal fighting, and now he will lead the agency charged with enforcing the federal law to break up dogfighting and cockfighting rings. He stood up to the puppy mill industry and vetoed a bill in 2006 that would have weakened protections for pets by reclassifying dogs as "farm products." He also exhibited tremendous fortitude and adherence to principle when he vetoed legislation in 2001 that would have allowed the sport hunting of mourning doves for the first time in decades. Standing up to the NRA and the gun lobby in a big hunting state, he said at the time:

The majority of Iowans do not support changing the current law to legalize dove hunting. My office has received contact from thousands of concerned Iowans regarding this issue, and my conclusion is that this policy is not right for our state at this time.

Vilsack recognized the importance of protecting animals from cruelty and abuse, and the importance of public involvement in the decision-making process. He'll need that same principled leadership in enforcing the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the Animal Welfare Act, the Horse Protection Act, and other federal laws. We look forward to working with him to elevate animal protection, food safety,and protection of the environment at USDA, which has consistently subverted these important considerations and sided time and again with the knee-jerk positions of agribusiness. He'll have a big role to play in how our nation confronts puppy mills, factory farming, predator control, the use of animals in research and testing, and other practices and industries that have compromised animal welfare.

Salazar was a surprise choice for Interior, and wasn’t one of the names pushed by animal advocates. His record on animal issues in the U.S. Senate has been mixed, scoring 0 on the Humane Scorecard for the 109th Congress, and 50 percent in the 110th Congress. He voted against legislation to ban horse slaughter in 2005, but in the current session he co-sponsored legislation to strengthen the penalties for animal fighting and signed onto a letter requesting increased funds for the adequate enforcement of animal welfare laws. He has received relatively high marks on environmental issues from the League of Conservation Voters, scoring 78 percent in the 109th Congress and 85 percent in the 110th Congress.But, again, as with animal advocates, Salazar was not on the list of preferred candidates for the environmental community. The President-elect passed over more strongly recommended candidates such as Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Jay Inslee.

As Interior chief, Salazar will oversee the enforcement of wildlife protection laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and will have authority for wildlife management practices on millions of acres of federal lands in national parks, national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management properties. We look forward to working with him, too, and addressing the major wildlife policy issues such as protecting threatened polar bears and other species from the impacts of global warming, deploying immunocontraceptive technology to manage wild horses and burros humanely on the range, and addressing the animal welfare and public safety risks of the exotic pet trade.

Jackson led the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and was a leading animal advocate in the state. She rejected attempts by the NRA, Safari Club, and other trophy hunting groups to initiate a hunting season on New Jersey’s small population of black bears, and she instead implemented a comprehensive program to solve bear conflicts with humane methods such as trash management and public education. We are pleased to have such an innovative leader at the helm of EPA, and we hope to work with her on continued efforts to prioritize the use of alternatives to animals in toxicity testing, to ensure strong penalties for pollution from factory farms and dismantle the Bush Administration’s corporate giveaway that exempts them from having to report their massive toxic emissions.

President-elect Obama has pledged to make progress for animal welfare and environmental stewardship, and we hope these appointees will prove to be an excellent team to help him meet these crucial goals. We congratulate the nominees, and look forward to working with the new Administration to confront the major challenges facing animals and the environment.

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