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April 01, 2014

Mountain Lions, Horse Soring, and Politics in America

On Saturday night, at the first of our series of celebratory events commemorating The HSUS’ diamond (60th) anniversary, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb and I gave the first-ever “Humane Governor” award to California’s Jerry Brown.

Wayne LA gala
Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who received The HSUS' "Humane Governor" award, has signed 24 animal welfare bills in the first three years of his current term.

Gov. Brown, who won his first of three non-consecutive gubernatorial terms 40 years ago, has signed 24 animal welfare bills during the first three years of his current term.  He’s helped cement California’s place as the top humane state, signing bills to ban the shark fin trade, halt the hounding of bears and bobcats, phase out the use of lead ammunition in hunting, and create pathways for non-lethal approaches to human conflicts with mountain lions. In his remarks to the audience, Gov. Brown spoke about the web of life and caring for all of nature, making it clear that this was a big part of his motivation in signing the bills. 

We don’t take good, caring politicians for granted.  We know that some politicians don’t share a compassionate approach to animal welfare policy, more readily acting as demagogues than as defenders of humane values.  The poster boy for that is Nebraska’s Gov. Dave Heineman. Last week, he vetoed a bill – which passed 28 to 13 in his state’s legislature – to halt the trophy hunting of Nebraska’s small population of mountain lions.  Sadly, Gov. Heineman’s second term has been filled with intemperate, ill-informed, and intentionally misleading comments about The HSUS, and he’s become a political front man for the most regressive interests within industrial agriculture in North America.  He’s an apologist for gestation crates, battery cages, and so many of the worst practices in factory farming.

Among U.S. Senators, we also see a range of rhetoric and voting behavior on animal welfare issues.  For me, one basic test for lawmakers on animal issues is whether he or she stands for or against criminal animal cruelty.  Indeed, in the 113th Congress, perhaps the two most discussed animal issues are directly concerned with making laws against animal cruelty crimes work more efficiently.  One involves cracking down on the attendees at staged dogfights and cockfights, and the other is about strengthening the Horse Protection Act of 1970, which makes it a crime to torment Tennessee Walking horses in a practice known as soring.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, co-sponsored the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act and helped get it attached as an amendment to the Farm Bill.  She’s also the Senate co-author of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, S. 1406, which seeks to strengthen penalties for soring, eliminate a discredited and failed industry self-enforcement program, and ban the use of stacks and chains on the horses’ feet and legs – practices that have become tricks of the trade for unscrupulous horse-soring trainers. Her PAST Act and its House counterpart, H.R. 1518, have garnered overwhelming bipartisan support, with 51 Senators and 269 Representatives joining as cosponsors. 

Sen. Ayotte stands in contrast to Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee.  Sen. Alexander seems like a decent man, but he’s emerging as an apologist for animal cruelty.  When the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act came up in the Senate for a floor vote a couple of years ago, Sen. Alexander was one of just 11 “no” votes on the issue.  Fortunately, we were able to overcome his opposition, with nearly every Democrat and an overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus siding with the pro-animal position. This also enabled our allies to attach the anti-fighting provision to the Farm Bill that passed in February.  There’s a good bit of illegal cockfighting in rural Tennessee, and it’s obvious that Senator Alexander was playing to that crowd with his vote.

But now, Sen. Alexander has taken an adverse position on a second major humane issue by announcing his plans to introduce legislation on behalf of the horse soring criminals who infest the “Big Lick” segment of the industry.  His bill, as reported today in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, would maintain the industry’s discredited self-regulation scheme, would keep in place anemic penalties for illegal soring, and would keep it legal to use stacks and chains on the horses.  Sen. Alexander’s proposal is expected to largely mirror the pro-soring bill introduced by Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

How in this day and age can anyone defend animal fighting and intentionally injuring the feet and legs of horses to win prizes at horse shows?  Well, typically, they don’t, loudly proclaiming that they, too, oppose animal cruelty. 

By doing so, they mask their true intent by speaking of “states’ rights” or “keeping government out of our lives” or even making the Orwellian claim that their pro-cruelty bills are actually aimed against cruelty. 

But we read the bills, and we know the facts, and we’ve thoroughly investigated and documented these forms of cruelty.  These are criminal industries, and it’s shameful for any lawmaker to serve as an impediment to rooting out this type of gratuitous animal cruelty.

When it comes to animal cruelty, you stand for it or against it.  So many politicians – Republicans and Democrats – join with us in our desire to root it out and end it forever, but there are still too many of them who think they can pull a fast one with the voters and confuse their constituents with fast talk and the rhetoric of reform.  We’ll be working hard to tell the full story and to demand real reform, since so many lives hang in the balance. 

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