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August 26, 2009

Remembering Ted Kennedy: A Lion for Animals, As Well

The nation mourns the loss today of Sen. Edward Kennedy—but in a different way than his three older brothers, all of whom were cut down in youth or midlife and long before they completed their work on Earth. Ted Kennedy had to deal with a degree of trauma and loss that few of us can ever know, and with the abrupt and unexpected deaths of three of his closest family members, he was thrust into the role of patriarch of his famous and large but shrunken family. Yet the tragedy and the responsibility did not debilitate him, but somehow infused him with an added measure of commitment to public service and the common good. He triumphed in the face of adversity and lived a full and complete life, leaving a mark over the last 50 years that few public servants can ever hope to achieve. He was not only a champion of many important social and economic causes, but a brilliant legislator who leaves in his wake a raft of laws that embody the values that he held so dear and that gave meaning and purpose to his life and the lives of others.

Though animal welfare was not one of his signature concerns, he was always there for the cause, and he had all the right instincts on the subject. It was personal for Sen. Kennedy. He loved his dogs, and he could often be seen at the Capitol with his furry companions at his side. His beloved Splash "narrated" his wonderful book introducing young readers to the Congress and the legislative process.

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Photo credit Chris Hartlove

His compassion extended far beyond his own family’s pets. He was a stalwart ally over the years on a wide range of legislation to protect companion animals, farm animals, animals in research, and wildlife. Measures he cosponsored and voted for included those to crack down on dogfighting and cockfighting, ban horse slaughter, curb abuses at puppy mills, end the slaughter of “downed” animals (those too sick or injured to stand and walk), limit federal subsidies for very large factory farms, condemn Canada’s commercial seal hunt, halt poaching of bears for their viscera, block oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and restrict taxpayer funding for use of steel-jaw leghold traps on national wildlife refuges. Sen. Kennedy also consistently joined calls, beginning in 2001, for increased funding to ensure viable oversight and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and other key laws.

For eight years, he led the Senate on legislation to phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on factory farms—a reckless practice used to keep animals in inhumane, overcrowded and highly stressful conditions, which hastens the development of antibiotic resistance and threatens the availability of effective medicines to treat sick people and animals.

Sen. Kennedy also championed the first-ever legislation calling for development of alternatives to animal testing—as part of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) Revitalization Act of 1993—and he was the lead Democratic sponsor of a bill enacted in 2000 that strengthened and made permanent the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods, to encourage the use of non-animal or less invasive tests that are more humane and can be more accurate and cost-effective than antiquated animal tests used for products such as cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

As chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the NIH, he played a key role in enactment of a bill in 2000 to establish a national sanctuary system for chimpanzees no longer used in medical research but warehoused in small, barren, and expensive cages in federally funded laboratories.

In addition to his work on all of these specific issues, Sen. Kennedy had an extraordinary talent for inspiring people to become involved in public service and social change. He helped inspire many activists to pursue their passions, including animal protection. He participated in the Humane Society Legislative Fund's Party Animals program about three years ago when he joined on a call with thousands of activists across the country to help energize their work on behalf of legislation to protect animals in disasters, which led to the passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act. "I wouldn't leave the house without Sunny and Splash," Sen. Kennedy said on the nationwide conference call. "It's no surprise that so many people in New Orleans flat-out refused to be rescued if they couldn't take their pets with them." The PETS Act, he said, "is not just about saving animals; it's about saving people, too."

I spoke with him on a good number of occasions, including this year’s Inauguration Day, and never did he exhibit anything less than enormous comity and kindness, even though his illness was severe and had confined him to a wheelchair. He always had a wonderful word to say about Mimi Brody, The HSUS’s director of federal legislation, who had worked on Sen. Kennedy’s staff for nearly a decade prior to joining our organization. Mimi’s own remarkable and highly focused work on animal issues with us since 1999 put an exclamation point on the oft-expressed testimonial from Capitol Hill mavens that Sen. Kennedy maintained the smartest and hardest working staff on Capitol Hill.

He was passionate about the issues he advanced in the Senate, but he counted among his closest friends many Republican senators whom he had policy disagreements with. He often spoke about wanting to create a “Canine Caucus,” and said it would be one of the truly bipartisan groups on Capitol Hill, because he shared his love of dogs with Republican senators like Mike Enzi, Kit Bond, and Elizabeth Dole. His warmth and kindness on Capitol Hill were legendary and should provide a lesson on model conduct for elected officials and any of the rest of us who deal with contentious issues on a regular basis.

Our condolences go to his wife Vicki, his son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and the rest of the Kennedy family. His demise from brain cancer is a moment of profound loss for the country, to be sure. But his record of service is a testament to the ideals of tenacity, compassion, and grace, and in the work that he did, he provides inspiration to the living.

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