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February 24, 2009

Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger

One of The HSUS’s most important functions is to spotlight decision-making—sound and unsound. We single out leadership on behalf of animals to show what’s right. And we highlight bad conduct to debunk flawed thinking and promote accountability.

Two very different people deserve the attention for actions they took yesterday—Madeleine Pickens for her good instincts, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) for his cynical obstructionism of a bill, the Captive Primate Safety Act, that thankfully has just been passed by a vote of 323-95 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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© madeleinepickens.com
Madeleine Pickens

First, my thanks go to Mrs. Pickens, wife of Texas businessman Boone Pickens. Mr. and Mrs. Pickens are big boosters of his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. Boone has given tens of millions to the University, and Madeleine not long ago pledged $5 million to its veterinary school, with the expectation that the school would undertake a careful examination of its policies on the humane treatment of animals in research and education. Yesterday, concluding that she’d been given the run-around, especially on OSU’s policies concerning practice surgeries on live animals, Mrs. Pickens said that none of her money would go to the veterinary college, and that she preferred to redirect her philanthropic giving to other schools at the university.

You see, in addition to its practice surgery labs, OSU purchases dogs through the disreputable Class B dealer system. In both respects, OSU is out of step with a welcome trend in veterinary education, in which students avoid terminal surgery on healthy animals, learning instead through surgical internships at animal shelters and surgical practice on deceased animals whose bodies are donated. Last summer The HSUS supported an OSU veterinary student working on a proposal to establish a body donation program. In addition, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association has supported an OSU student who sought and obtained alternative surgical training that did not involve unnecessary practice surgery on healthy animals, providing information about veterinary schools where such practices are no longer countenanced.

Bravo to you, Madeleine, for drawing attention to this problem. OSU should not be getting dogs from Class B dealers. It should not be doing unnecessary practice surgeries on healthy dogs. And it should institute alternatives for its students.

Second, it’s time to call out Rep. Rob Bishop for his hypocritical and short-sighted thinking.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives took up H.R. 80, the Captive Primate Safety Act. The bill’s author, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), together with Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), made an impassioned and strong case for the legislation, just a week after a Connecticut woman was attacked and disfigured by a chimpanzee named “Travis.”

Rep. Bishop, managing the bill for the Republicans, spoke out against it, as he did last year. Unreliable on animal welfare issues, Bishop has opposed legislation to protect horses, polar bears, and cranes. During his four terms in Congress, he’s had an average score of 22 on the Humane Society Legislative Fund's Humane Scorecard, putting him at the bottom of the list.

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Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)

In the wake of last week’s attack by Travis—one of the worst incidents of this kind, involving an animal sold interstate by a dealer from Missouri—Rep. Bishop had become a principal obstacle to federal action. Bishop argued against H.R. 80, asserting that the states should legislate on the matter. States can and should prohibit keeping primates as pets, as about 20 have done. But because of the patchwork of state and federal laws, and the interstate nature of the trade—particularly now that primates can be found for sale on the Internet—a federal response is needed, too. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this week, the same dealer who sold Travis has sold or kept 15 to 20 chimps over the years, including Travis’ mother, also shot dead as a public safety threat.

H.R. 80 seeks to dry up the trade in primates to prevent these incidents from happening, an appropriate role for our federal government. Rep. Bishop, in one of just two pro-animal votes, supported legislation to ban the interstate trade in big cats (the other vote concerned an increase in federal penalties for animal fighting). I guess he thinks it's okay for the feds to halt the cat trade, but not the primate trade. It’s a classic case of inconsistency, made so much worse by what happened to Charla Nash in Connecticut.

But what really galled me about Bishop was his hypocrisy about Congressional priorities. He prattled on about how the Congress should spend its time on more important matters, as if we should be debating the stimulus bill every day and that the Congress is incapable of simultaneously addressing other matters.

Rep. Blumenauer put him in his place nicely, since Rep. Bishop had two of his own bills on the calendar that day. Those bills dealt with minor land transfers, nothing to compare with the magnitude of protecting the safety of people threatened by powerful wild animals that can maim and kill.

All too frequently, in matters that concern The HSUS’s work, there are those Members who make fatuous arguments as Bishop did, thinking they can fool the public. But we are not fooled, and Bishop knows his argument was a charade, just as other Members do.

On some days, especially Mondays, when Members are returning from their districts, the Congress takes up countless bills and resolutions that do not advance the workings of the republic or prime the engines of our economy. Bishop has foisted many pet concerns of a trivial nature upon his colleagues, with floor speeches praising Salt Lake City night life, a credit union official in his district, and the president of the Golden Spike Association, none of which would survive the standard of relevance he used to attack H.R. 80.

The Captive Primate Safety Act is no trivial matter, and the Congress can do more than one thing at a time. I feel quite sure that Charla Nash, the woman whose life has been tragically altered by the chimp attack, just wishes Congress had gotten to the matter some years ago. Let's hope that the Senate loses no time in passing the bill, for the seeds of future incidents are being sown right now.

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