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December 03, 2012

Policymakers Hamper Progress for Animals

It is amazing to me how often the U.S. Congress works not only against common sense, but also contrary to the national interest. Take two trade-related issues currently being debated and deliberated upon in that body: importation of sport-hunted polar bear trophies, and the trade in nine species of large constricting snakes sold as pets.

Regarding snakes, last year U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., introduced a good bill, H.R. 511, seeking to ban trade in Burmese pythons, green anacondas, and seven other species of constricting snakes that are imported and traded for purchase as exotic pets. Burmese pythons have colonized Everglades National Park and, according to peer-reviewed research, wiped out entire classes of small and medium-sized native mammals in one of America’s best known and most important national parks. The U.S. Geological Survey identified the nine species covered by the Rooney bill as medium or high risk from an ecological perspective, to say nothing of the threats to the snakes themselves in the process of trade, or to humans who foolishly acquire them as pets and fall victim to their predatory instincts.

Some months ago, the House Judiciary Committee, with a couple of weakening amendments, rightly approved H.R. 511. But the reptile lobby—yes, there is such a thing—has been thrashing its collective tail and saying how benign these snakes are and that cold weather will prevent the snakes from going much farther than the Everglades (I guess it’s no matter to these supposed snake “lovers” that the snakes will freeze to death). Somehow the snake lobby, in the form of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, has hoodwinked a number of Republican House members and apparently convinced them that this is a matter of “economic freedom.” In short, people make money breeding and selling snakes, and they want to continue to do so—the consequences be damned. So last Thursday the House Natural Resources Committee conducted a hearing with Republicans on the panel saying it’s “open season on enterprise, on freedom.” One outspoken Congressman, freshman Rep. Steve Southerland, scored a zero on the Humane Scorecard during his first term and even voted against legislation to make it a crime to attend or bring a child to a dogfight or cockfight. He apparently takes such a broad view of freedom that it’s okay to torture animals or to import dangerous invasive species into the country for use as pets, even if they are creating ecological havoc, injuring and killing private citizens, and costing the nation millions of dollars in terms of containment activities.

Polar bear with cub
© istockphoto

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrat leaders are trying their best to pass a grab-bag bill for the trophy hunting lobby. One provision of the bill, introduced by Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., would ban the EPA from restricting the use of toxic lead ammunition, which is known to poison millions of wild animals every year. A second provision in the bill would allow the import of 41 polar bear trophies, shot by American big-game hunters which are currently stuffed and mounted and in cold storage in Canada. The hunters, who forked over $30,000 or more for a guided polar bear hunt, don’t get to enjoy the heads and hides in their living rooms—and that makes them mad. The separation anxiety is killing them.

This came to pass because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list polar bears as a threatened species, because as it is well known, the species is at extreme risk due to climate change and, to a lesser extent, trophy hunting and commercial trade. So, hearing about the imminent federal protections for the bears, wealthy hunters rushed up to Canada (the only country, among the five range nations with polar bears, to allow sport hunting of the animals) for a chance to be among the last people in the world to shoot one of the world’s biggest and most fearsome predators. These hunters didn’t get the heads and hides into the country in time, so they have pleaded with Congress for an import allowance, even though the species is listed as threatened with extinction.

Can you imagine what could happen if Congress does this? Every time a hunted species is proposed for the endangered list we’ll have a bums’ rush of hunters to the range country allowing last dibs on endangered animals. For instance, The HSUS and other animal welfare and conservation groups recently submitted a petition urging the listing of the African lion as endangered. In response, can we expect to see a bunch of American hunters booking their flights to Johannesburg and Windhoek so they can shoot lions there and get the heads and manes in before the federal government closes off the trade? And if the hunters can’t get this bucket-list item completed in time, can they then plead to their members of Congress for another trophy import allowance? Let’s hope not.

There are a lot of devoted animal advocates in Congress, and some very good bills moving forward. But there is also a lot of foolishness, selfishness, and greed in Congress and the snake and polar bear issues show off these characteristics in the worst possible ways. A narrow special interest along with pliant and favor-seeking lawmakers makes for some truly ugly outcomes for animals and our nation.

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