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March 19, 2014

Right to Farm or Right to Harm

PigsLet’s count the ways that our political adversaries try to thwart progress to help farm animals. They work hard to pass ag-gag laws to make it a crime to take pictures of animals on farms or to conduct undercover investigations. They work in Congress, with Rep. Steve King as their leader, to try to preempt state animal welfare laws that prohibit some of the worst abuses in factory farming. They seek to increase the degree of difficulty in qualifying ballot initiatives to help farm animals or other animals – either by raising the total number of signatures needed or by imposing an onerous distribution requirement – to block any future measures we might undertake. 

One of their latest gambits are the so-called “right to farm” measures now moving through some Midwest state legislatures and headed for the ballot or into law in others.

After trying to block all ballot measures related to animal welfare in 2002 – the same year we had an anti-cockfighting measure on the ballot – Oklahoma lawmakers are now seeking to place a measure on the November ballot that would guarantee that “the rights of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.”  The measure goes on to say, “The Legislature shall pass no law which abridges the rights of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and modern livestock production and ranching practices.”  North Dakota voters approved a similar measure in November 2012, and Missouri voters will have a nearly identical measure on the ballot later in the year. 

No other industry is afforded such an unreasonable blanket protection in any state. Why should farming practices -- which for good reasons ought to be the subject of unending innovation and improvements -- be locked in place from a legal perspective, in a fashion that precludes voters or legislators from enacting reasonable standards that reflect our core values in society?

Has animal agribusiness been such a remarkable upstanding corporate citizen that its practices are beyond reproach? Some players within the industry confine animals to the point of immobilizing them for their entire lives. Others release enormous amounts of untreated animal waste into their communities. Others lace feed and water with antibiotics, threatening to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could have dangerous consequences to the health of people throughout the nation.

This is not the kind of track record that warrants a policy response to forever inhibit state legislative standards. The “Right to Farm” constitutional amendment will not allow Missouri or Oklahoma legislators to impose common sense environmental and animal welfare controls on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Lawmakers will have no recourse to make sure that industrial farms don’t pollute our water, or to keep multinational corporations from bullying family farmers and driving them out of business. Or what about foreign corporations buying up farms and then doing whatever they want with the constitutional protections enshrined in law with “right to farm?” As an example, do we want foreign officials calling the shots on pig farms and chicken farms owned by the company or contracting with the company, in Oklahoma or Missouri?

And what happens if a giant hog farm wants to open near a new community development, or near a scenic trail or a high-use river? Can the state not step in and balance the interests? And who will decide what types of modern farming will be given constitutional protection? Will people have the right to farm horses or dogs for meat in a residential neighborhood? The result will be endless and costly litigation to sort out which regulations are allowed and which ones are trumped by the state constitution.

The Right to Farm measures are an unwarranted overreach by industries that want free rein, and don’t want accountability in our system of checks and balances. Consumers, government, and industry all have responsibilities to examine behavior and business, and the beauty of our system of government not only involves the interplay of these actors, but a continuous level of engagement between them all. To freeze the current policies, and to prevent legislators from touching an enterprise as fundamental as agriculture, is reckless and antidemocratic, especially at a time when the citizens of our nation are more interested in food policy than ever. 

I guess though, that’s the point of their effort. They don’t want to hear from consumers. Just eat what’s on your plate. They’re not interested in what you have to say or what you want.     

March 18, 2014

Sounding the Alarm on Horse Soring


A horse at the National Celebration in Shelbyville in 2013, one of many wearing chains and stacks.

This week, The HSUS rolled out a new television advertisement calling on lawmakers to crack down on the illegal, unethical, and inhumane practice of horse “soring” – where trainers injure the feet and legs of horses by mechanical or chemical means to force them to perform an exaggerated high-stepping gait (known as the “Big Lick”) at competitive shows. The ads started running in Kentucky this week, and urge viewers to call on Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to support the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which has 51 cosponsors and was introduced by their Republican colleague Kelly Ayotte. (The House bill, introduced by Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield and Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, has a remarkable 268 cosponsors.) We’ll be expanding the reach of these advertisements to other media markets around the country in the coming weeks.

Sen. Paul sounded off recently in a news story and said he was considering introducing a companion to Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn’s pro-soring bill, H.R. 4098, which would put authority to oversee the practice of soring under the control of the very people engaging in criminal conduct. The Blackburn bill is sham reform, and it would make enforcement of the current weak rules even more difficult.

Sen. Ayotte’s bill, on the other hand, would end the failed industry self-policing system; ban the show-ring use of chains, stacks, and excessively heavy shoes (devices that are part and parcel of the soring process); and increase penalties for violators.

Footage from the undercover investigation revealing shocking abuse. You can ask your legislators to support the PAST Act here.

Sen. Paul would only bring shame on himself to stand in the way of legislation to root out this form of illegal, malicious and intentional cruelty to horses. It’s my hope that he sees that the industry is attempting to deny that abuses are widespread and to protect the “Big Lick” scofflaws. No one should be able to get away with burning chemicals on the legs of horses to cause them pain and misery in order to win ribbons for themselves.

The entire issue was thrust into the spotlight after a 2011 HSUS investigation into Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell’s (no relation to the Senator) stable in Collierville, Tenn. The investigator recorded horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and intentionally burned with caustic chemicals. The new commercial shows footage from this investigation.

McConnell is not just one bad apple. He was a leader in the industry and a Hall of Fame trainer, and insiders have said that just about everybody in the “Big Lick” segment of the industry is abusing horses. If they don’t, they feel the other trainers will have an unfair advantage. The rot within the industry has set in for decades, and they are fighting this effort to clean out the decay and criminal subculture.

If they weren’t doing it, why would they fear the PAST Act? And why are they saying the PAST Act would destroy their industry? If there were just a handful of bad operators, they would have nothing to worry about.

The PAST Act is endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, every state veterinary medical association (including the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association), the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the American Horse Council, along with a host of other national animal protection, veterinary and horse industry organizations.

It is noteworthy that such a diverse and powerful array of organizations have come together to call for a legislative solution to a problem – and some of these groups disagree on other welfare issues, such as horse slaughter. But all of them see soring as torture, and agree that the law must speak and it must be enforced.

Watch the ad below, and then take action by contacting your legislators here


March 17, 2014

From Millstone to Milestone

Our movement achieved a remarkable milestone last week, with South Dakota becoming the 50th state to adopt felony-level penalties for malicious cruelty to animals (The bill also makes cockfighting a felony offense).  A couple of our founding fathers (Washington and Jefferson) and their heirs (Lincoln and Roosevelt), represented by Mount Rushmore in the state, must have cracked a smile in their granite facades, since it marks a moment in the growth of civility and the rule of law in our society.

Doll at emergency shelterEstablishing serious penalties for malicious cruelty has been a top priority for the HSUS over the last quarter century, and the enactment of the South Dakota statute closes out an important element of our quest for universal opposition to cruelty. I’ve long believed that our movement is grounded on anti-cruelty principles, and the enshrining in the law of meaningful penalties for cruelty is a foundation stone for the acceptance of our ideals. 

In this case, the effort in South Dakota to pass the bill was led by South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven. There were a broad array of stakeholders involved, including livestock groups, law enforcement officials, veterinarians, local animal control officials, along with animal welfare supporters. Darci Adams, HSUS’s state director in South Dakota, called it a “great day for animals in the state.”

The stage for enactment of this measure was set after a 2012 ballot initiative in neighboring North Dakota that we launched to make that state the 49th to adopt felony-level penalties for cruelty to animals.  Voters there rejected the measure, but only after our adversaries promised to enact an even more comprehensive measure against cruelty in the legislature. That bill was passed in 2013.  Then, with South Dakota standing alone among the states, and with people talking about a potential HSUS ballot initiative there, the stage was set for action in the state.  South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the bill into law late last week.

No one wants to stand out on cruelty to animals issues, and that’s how things played out some years ago with our campaign to outlaw cockfighting in all the states.  We conducted ballot measures in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma to outlaw cockfighting some years ago, and that left only Louisiana and New Mexico with legal cockfighting.  Then Governor Bill Richardson led the fight to ban cockfighting in his state in 2007, and Louisiana followed suit, after a strong HSUS campaign, with that ban coming into effect in 2008. 

Prior to 1986, only four states had felony animal cruelty laws. Only about a dozen states had felony-level penalties for dogfighting, and about a half-dozen had felony penalties for cockfighting. But today, all 50 states and the federal government treat dogfighting as a felony offense.  In 2008, a year after the Michael Vick case came to light, Idaho and Wyoming adopted felony-level penalties for dogfighting, at the urging of The HSUS.  

We at HSUS have had a lot of monumental accomplishments, but this is surely one of the biggest.  It’s a moment to celebrate our gains, and to look ahead to the goals we as a movement want to achieve in the years ahead.

March 14, 2014

Olympian Hero Brings Home More Than a Medal

Sochi_Dogs_Day3_Todayshow_Wide (64 of 22)
Humane Society International's Masha Kalinina, Gus Kenworthy and Robin Macdonald with two of the rescued puppies. View more photos here. Photo by Christopher Lane/AP Images for HSI

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy made headlines not for just winning a silver medal, but for pledging to adopt and care for a family of street dogs living near the Olympic village. Today, he celebrated the return of some of the dogs in an interview on The Today Show on NBC.

While forging a powerful bond with a mother and her pups, Gus came to understand that there was more at stake than the family of dogs he befriended. Sochi authorities were poisoning and rounding up dogs, and he knew there had to be a better way. During the Olympics, he and photographer, friend Robin Macdonald partnered with our affiliate, Humane Society International, making determined efforts over weeks to get the dogs out of Russia and to the U.S. to be placed in adoptive homes.

Gus’s empathetic handling of the street dog situation contrasted sharply with the misguided efforts of Sochi officials to cleanse their city of these animals at the start of the games. Perhaps to the surprise of some bureaucrats, dogs in the Olympic village did not create fear or revulsion; on the contrary, they inspired sympathy and compassionate efforts to help them. Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire, worked with citizens to set up an emergency shelter, Povodog, to help the dogs.

Taking a break after the long journey
Photo by Christopher Lane/AP Images for HSI

For HSI, street dog management is hardly a new concern. We’ve done pioneering street dog work in Bhutan, India, the Philippines, and other nations in Asia. In the months before the Olympics, we offered to develop similar plans for Sochi, as an alternative to round-up and killing or direct poisoning or shooting of the dogs. And we have called upon the International Olympic Committee to consider humane values when it is selecting host cities and nations in the future.

For the past few weeks we have been working with Gus and Robin, to get some of the dogs back to the U.S. for adoption, and that reunion happened today.

As Gus and Robin, along with HSI vice president Kitty Block, told a national audience today, we’re committed to addressing the world’s stray and street dog problems with innovative methods, not the archaic and cruel practices that have characterized the approach of too many communities in too many nations.

Russia is just one of those nations in which the treatment of street animals is not yet a priority. Our view is a simple one. It can never be a 21st century power and a leader in the world if it does not commit to appropriately address animal protection issues. Russia will be hosting soccer’s 2018 World Cup in eight cities (including Sochi) and it would be fantastic if the governments of those eight cities would adopt and implement humane street dog management programs before that time. It would be a great start, and we can help.

March 13, 2014

Fighting for All Animals, Everywhere

Dogs at the suspected puppy mill prior to being rescued. You can view a slideshow of the rescue here. Photo by Shannon Johnstone

“For far too long, dogs have been suffering like this in puppy mills across North Carolina,” Kim Alboum, the HSUS state director there, said yesterday after she and local organizations conducted a rescue of 55 dogs living in squalor and confinement in Iredell County. Iredell County Animal Control called in The HSUS, Guilford County Animal Shelter and Iredell County Humane Society, to assist with the rescue and removal of these suffering creatures. Now they’ll have a new, brighter, better life, and their story will give further momentum to an improved legal framework in the state. As Kim notes, “This rescue, along with the 16 other we've assisted with in the past 3 years, demonstrates the need for stronger laws in North Carolina.” 

You may remember that it was just last week that our HSUS teams rescued more than 180 animals at a puppy mill in Arkansas. 

Meanwhile, our Pets for Life work is expanding in underserved communities throughout the U.S, our veterinary teams deploy with frequency to remote and impoverished Indian reservations, and our street dog vaccination and sterilization program staff are on the ground working in some of the poorest and most economically challenged nations in the world.  We recently concluded a successful World Spay Day, with more than 700 events taking place across the globe.

I am amazed at the willful denial of our critics in big agribusiness and other animal-use sectors about the reach and impact of our hands-on work. When will they understand that The HSUS, while also being the lead advocacy group for all animals, is also the largest animal-care provider in the United States, with our animal care centers adding substantially to the number of animals we touch directly? When will they acknowledge the work of our wildlife response teams helping all manner of wild creatures in harm’s way? When will they recognize that our animal rescue teams are bringing dogs like those in Arkansas and North Carolina out of horrible situations almost weekly, changing their lives dramatically for the better?

Of course, the pork industry does not want or like our hard-hitting campaigns to stop major retailers from purchasing their product, most of it coming from operations that confine sows in cruel gestation crates. The trophy hunters aren’t happy that we turned in 228,000 signatures today to qualify our referendum in Michigan to stop their power grab on wildlife policy and to block their hunting program targeting the state’s small and fragile population of wolves. And they are none too happy that last week we formally qualified our ballot initiative in Maine to stop bear baiting, hounding, and trapping – in order to relieve Maine of the moral burden of being the only state that allows all three unsporting, inhumane methods of bear hunting. And I cannot imagine that the horse sorers will be dancing with joy in their stables as we launch, in the coming days, a national television advertising campaign to pass legislation to crack down on the criminals who continue to torment Tennessee Walking Horses in order to cause them so much pain in their feet that they step higher at the shows.

There will always be politicians sadly in the pocket of these interests and who use their office as a lever to attack us, or to amplify the voices of the status quo in these industries. That comes with the territory for us, and we understand it. But let them all remember that we meet these attacks with even more fierce determination to tackle the problems and the misery they’ve caused. We always prefer to win through the application of reason and science, but when asked to fight for animals, we will charge ahead to the front lines. People have been trying to stand in our way for 60 years, and we are bigger and stronger than ever before. That’s just who we are – taking on the biggest problems for animals and confronting the most entrenched industries. We count on you to stick with us as we engage these challenges, and drive the outcomes we all hope to see.

March 11, 2014

Long Odds for Survival for Greyhound Racing

Dog lovers everywhere should be pleased to learn that greyhound racing – once referred to as the “Sport of Queens” -- could be on its way out as a form of gambling and entertainment.

One of its last redoubts is in Florida, where commercial greyhound racing was first legalized 83 years ago, in the early 1930s. Nationally, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it grew into a multi-billion dollar business, operating in about two dozen states, at about 50 tracks.

Photo by iStock

Its popularity and high profits peaked in the late 1980’s, and since then, greyhound racing has experienced a dramatic decline. Today, only 7 states host dog racing – with 12 of the 21 surviving tracks in Florida, the hub of the industry. Wagering on dog racing has dropped for twenty years in a row.

There are several reasons for its decline, principally competition from casino gambling. Another driver of dog racing’s fall, however, has been increased concern for the treatment of the dogs.

Thanks to the leadership of the non-profit group GREY2K USA, and the longstanding efforts of many other parties, we now have more information about the problems associated with greyhound racing.  At two West Virginia dog tracks, 4,796 greyhound injuries were reported between January 2008 and June 2013.

 The state of Florida released reports last month that show that a racing greyhound dies every three days in the Sunshine state. In total, at least 95 greyhounds have died in Florida since May 31 of 2013, including dogs that died from catastrophic injuries, illnesses, and suspected heat stroke.

I’ve been to some of the farms where greyhounds are trained, and I didn’t find conditions there all that troublesome. I am more concerned about what happens on the track, especially the constant flow of greyhound dogs from the tracks that require adoption. This breeding and discarding of dogs taxes an already overloaded adoption system for shelters and rescue groups. And with perhaps 1.5 million dogs, of all breed types, still euthanized every year in the United States, it means that for every greyhound adopted, there’s usually one other dog who then won’t get a home.

It’s time for lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and everyone connected to the industry to realize that the era of greyhound racing has passed. The races are too short to keep your attention. There’s little skill for gamblers in picking winners. The industry discards dogs who don’t perform.  And the large number of on-track racing injuries and death simply can’t be overlooked.

In Florida, there’s an astonishing state requirement that track owners must run dogs in order to conduct other forms of gambling. Most of the track owners want to get out of the greyhound racing industry, because of the stigma associated with treating dogs this way and because it’s no longer lucrative. But the requirement that they must have live racing is a strange form of government coercion of private businesses.

Lawmakers in Iowa and Florida are considering proposals that would, as a practical matter, phase out greyhound racing, and the Colorado legislature has already approved a measure that will make Colorado the 39th state to outlaw dog racing. 

One of the books on my nightstand this year has been Gwyneth Anne Thayer’s history of organized greyhound racing, Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture. Thayer’s book shows the sport as a once common and popular entertainment in America, an outgrowth of rural culture, and a part of regional identity. But shifting moral sensitivities ensure that, now, it’s viewed mainly as a humdrum form of entertainment, tangled up with mistreatment of dogs. We’re just in a different place as a society, and we are hopeful that 2014 will be the year when lawmakers take action to benefit the dogs.  

March 10, 2014

Deregulating Poultry Slaughter, Sticking It to Workers and Chickens

Every day, tens of thousands of workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, often in frigid or scorching temperatures, at the nation’s poultry slaughtering plants as chickens race by at punishing speed, hanging upside down on metal hooks on the processing lines. Chicken is the country’s most prevalent meat, and it comes at a tremendous cost – to those who work on the lines and to the chickens, who receive no federal protection under the law. 

Chickens who are raised for meat are bred to grow so fast that many have difficulty even walking.
Photo by Compassion Over Killing

The workplace injury record for those who labor in chicken slaughtering plants is an occupational safety scandal, as they endure debilitating pain and crippling injuries to their hands, along with musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive motion conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Last week, more than 200,000 Americans joined with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus to protest the USDA’s proposals to reduce its inspector corps by some 40 percent, to hand off much of the oversight to the poultry companies themselves, and to allow an acceleration of the already blurring speed of the slaughtering lines. The General Accounting Office has contested the USDA’s claim that the proposal would reduce food-borne pathogens like Salmonella, a persistent problem in the nation’s chicken supply.  I was pleased to see the coalition of interests – which includes the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group, the National Council for La Raza -- working hard to overcome a shameful proposal that’s being sold by the USDA to the public in the most Orwellian terms, as something that’s actually good for workers, consumers, and chickens.

A recent study of Alabama’s poultry industry, which produces more than one billion broilers (chickens killed for meat) a year, painted a grim picture in which some three-quarters of workers surveyed reported suffering significant work-related injury or illness. In 2010, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted an injury rate more than 50 percent higher than the rate for all U.S. workers. And that’s with an acknowledged problem of under reporting and under counting.

The USDA’s own records, according to Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post, have shown that nearly one million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally drowned in tanks of scalding hot water each year in U.S. slaughterhouses. The birds are shackled upside down, then dragged through an electrified water bath to stun them, sent by a neck slicer, and then dumped into the scalding water bath. The birds who don’t get electrocuted and then killed by the neck slicer are the ones who are boiled alive. This is not only cruel, it poses food safety risks as the stressed birds defecate in the scalding water shared by many other birds.

It is astonishing, but the federal government has never included poultry – more than 8 billion animals, accounting for more than 95 percent of all animals killed for food – under the terms of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. 

In the end, the proposal is just one more generous concession to the nation’s largest poultry processors, who stand to gain an additional $250 million a year in revenue from the pick-up in the line speed. This industry is already highly deregulated, and this proposal makes an unacceptable situation even worse.

We are fighting self-regulation in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, and the rampant corruption it has spawned. USDA knows about that corruption and its problems, so why would it hand-off even more oversight to the companies who already often demonstrate so little regard for birds and workers?

March 07, 2014

The Latest on Pigs, Puppy Mills, and Laying Hens

There’s so much positive change afoot for animals, but it’s also true that we are more or less always in the throes of battle as a movement, with tough fights being waged right now and many more looming in the months and years ahead. 

This week, with City Clerk Susana Mendoza leading the charge, Chicago’s city council voted 49 to 1 to restrict pet stores from selling dogs from puppy mills, requiring instead that they adopt the Petco and PetSmart models of featuring dogs, cats, and rabbits from shelters and rescue groups. The locally-based Puppy Mill Project, Best Friends Animal Society, and The Humane Society of the United States all supported the measure. USDA inspection standards for puppy mills are inadequate and there is no program in the marketplace to ensure that dogs sold in pet stores come from breeders that meet higher animal care standards. That means that many dogs sold at pet stores come from puppy mills, and the option of restricting the sale of dogs is the best way to dry up this inhumane sector of the pet trade. Now 47 cities have similar standards, including many of the biggest. 

More and more companies are making plans to phase out cramped gestation crates for breeding sows.

To the north, in an expected but still stunning move, Canada’s National Farm Animal Care Council has stipulated that no new gestation crate facilities can be constructed there after July 1, 2014, and that continuous confinement in crates must be phased out within 10 years. This came after vigorous campaigning by Humane Society International/Canada, and after eight major food retailers said they would phase out their purchases of pork from suppliers that confined breeding sows in gestation crates by 2022.

Unfortunately, on the down side of things, yesterday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and four state Attorneys General – Luther Strange from Alabama, John Bruning from Nebraska, Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma, and Jack Conway of Kentucky – joined the effort by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to subvert states’ rights and to nullify a California law requiring that shell eggs sold in the state must come from laying hens that are able to “stand up, lie down, turn around, and freely extend their limbs.”

What’s the common explanation for the intervention of the Governor and AGs? They all hail from states with vociferous, uncompromising agriculture interests, mainly the pork and cattle industries. These same agriculture groups have thus far stymied the effort in Congress to pass national, uniform legislation to give laying hens more space and to give consumers more information about production methods for the laying hens. And they’re also behind the big push for ag-gag laws to prevent the public from learning anything about what goes on in their operations.

So what’s the common denominator? These folks don’t want to see legislation to enforce a minimum standard of care for animals. Not at the state level. Not at the federal level. They think they have the situation entirely under control, leaving animals at the absolute mercy of those who somehow think it’s acceptable to confine animals so severely that they cannot move.

Who wants to be part of an industry so misaligned with the values of consumers and responsible for so much misery and privation for animals? And who wants to stand up for that kind of industry? Every one of these parties is on the wrong side of history. The Chicago anti-puppy mill ordinance, and the new anti-gestation crate policy in Canada, are signs of shifting public opinion that favors a just standard for animals. Of course, though, there will always be people, interest groups, and industries that stand in the way, often for transparently political reasons. But they are not only obstructing moral progress, but economic progress, even as they say exactly the opposite.

March 04, 2014

The Tweet Heard Round the World

Ellen DeGeneres never ceases to amaze me, with her unparalleled wit and talent, generosity of spirit and passion for animal protection. But she really reached a new high in my book, by directing $1.5 million to The HSUS after Samsung decided to give a dollar to her designated charity for every re-tweet of her now-famous selfie with some of the biggest stars in attendance at Sunday night’s Oscars awards. Her picture, which she tweeted that night to her 27 million followers, became the most re-tweeted in history, with more than three million people pushing out the picture, snapped with an assist from Bradley Cooper and capturing Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, and others in it.

We are going to divide her donation among three of The HSUS’ remarkable programs: Pets for Life, our Shelter Pet Project and our Animal Rescue Team. I’ve written about all of these life-saving programs before, and you can read all about them on our web site. The Animal Rescue Team has particularly been on my mind this week after its heroic rescue of 183 animals, living in filth and suffering from a lack of basic care, at a suspected puppy mill in Jefferson County, Ark. Tia Pope, manager of puppy mill response for The HSUS, said, "No animal should ever be forced to live in conditions like this…Now, they'll get the opportunity to live happy, healthy lives."

Arkansas puppy mill 240x270
Chuck Cook/ The HSUS
A dog rescued from Jefferson Co. Arkansas

Indeed, that’s what we try to do for all animals – provide them with happy, healthy lives. Ellen has always been on board with our strategy. She, too, cares about all animals. She’s had me on her show to talk about our campaigns a half dozen times, including back in 2008 in the run-up to Proposition 2, the landmark ballot measure to ban the extreme confinement of laying hens, breeding sows, and veal calves in the Golden State. That law, and a follow up law to apply Prop 2 standards for hens to eggs sold in the state, is under attack from the Missouri Attorney General, so our work is never done.

We’ve talked about the lives of privation and misery that animals on factory farms endure, and also about defending Missouri’s anti-puppy mill ballot measure from attacks in the Legislature, and about blocking ag-gag bills that try to silence our undercover investigations.

She’s the leading celebrity voice for animal protection in our nation, and we are so lucky to have her on our side. And all of us at The HSUS are so honored she chose to invest in our work, given all of the other worthy charities that serve animals and people.

Her support comes at an especially significant time as we are making preparations for our first 60th Anniversary gala event in Los Angeles later this month – to raise money for our companion animal and anti-factory farming work. There, California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has signed a raft of animal welfare legislation since becoming governor in 2011, will receive our Humane Governor award. We’ll also be recognizing Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, and two other celebrities who have done so much to advance the cause of animal protection – James Cromwell and Paul Wesley.

Because we’ll have a whole bunch of other celebrities at the event, I may go out and buy a Samsung Galaxy Note and go into the crowd and take a selfie with them. Bradley, can you help me, like you helped Ellen? We need you, man. March 29, Beverly Hilton, 6:30 p.m.

Ellen oscar selfie
Associated Press/ Ellen DeGeneres

March 03, 2014

Sorting Out Sordid Details on Soring

Tn_walking_horses_270x224This Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to take up S. 1406, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, introduced by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va. If approved by the committee, it will be poised for consideration by the full Senate, where nearly half of all 100 senators have already cosponsored the bill. A House companion bill, H.R. 1518, introduced by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has an astonishing 267 cosponsors – well beyond the 218 majority needed to pass a bill on the House floor.

The bill amends an existing federal law – the Horse Protection Act of 1970 – to rein in the cruel practice of “soring,” in which unscrupulous trainers deliberately inflict pain on the hooves and legs of Tennessee Walking Horses and certain other breeds to exaggerate their high-stepping gait and give them an unfair competitive advantage at horse shows. A brave undercover investigator from The HSUS exposed barbaric mistreatment of Tennessee Walking Horses at the stable of Jackie McConnell, a Hall of Fame trainer, resulting in federal and state prosecution of this man. Soring methods include applying caustic chemicals, using plastic wrap and tight bandages to “cook” those chemicals deep into the horse’s flesh for days, attaching heavy chains to strike against the sore legs, inserting bolts, screws or other hard objects into sensitive areas of the hooves, cutting the hooves down to expose the live tissue, and using salicylic acid or other painful substances to slough off scarred tissue in an attempt to disguise the sored areas. 

It’s been a federal crime for more than 40 years to injure horses to enhance performance in these shows, and I want to be clear that the main opposition to this bill comes from lawbreakers. This bill is being advanced precisely because a criminal element within the Walking horse industry persists in its cruel treatment of horses; the current law, and the enforcement of that law, have not proved sufficient to deter their routine criminal conduct. Honest and law-abiding trainers tell us that soring is rampant in the Big Lick sector of the industry, where the high-stepping, artificially-induced gait of the horses is what wins ribbons at shows, like the Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

The USDA Office of Inspector General did an exhaustive audit of the agency’s enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, and in a 2010 report, recommended reforms that would be codified by the PAST Act.  S. 1406 will amend the Horse Protection Act to end the failed industry self-policing system, strengthen penalties, ban the use of devices associated with soring, and make the actual soring of a horse for the purpose of showing or selling it illegal. The PAST Act is endorsed by the American Horse Council and more than 50 other national and state horse groups, as well as by the American Veterinary Medical Association, every state veterinary medical association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and many others.

Now, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who represents the region where the Big Lick horse soring crowd does its handiwork and brews its chemical concoctions to torment horses, has introduced a bill that in many ways affirms the status quo, but in other ways makes the situation even worse for horses. Lawmakers could not have a clearer choice – a bill that offers real reform, or one that appears to have been written by a criminal network of horse abusers who want to make sure the federal law doesn’t get in their way. 

Blackburn’s bill would do the following;

•        It would make the current problem worse by establishing a single Horse Industry Organization – essentially giving the industry “bad apples” the opportunity to set the rules and manage all inspections, while eliminating those HIOs that actually insist on no soring at shows they oversee now.

•        It would give titular oversight to agricultural commissioners in Kentucky and Tennessee – the two states where soring is most concentrated. There are already laws prohibiting soring on the books in these two states, but enforcement is rare and the illicit practice appears to be tolerated by some officials. No real action to curb this cruelty has ever been taken by those states themselves, other than two recent prosecutions (one driven by an HSUS investigation). 

•        It would empower the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association to help shape the HIO board. A review of the history of members of the WHTA board demonstrates that most of them have been repeat violators of the HPA, often throughout their careers, racking up HIO suspensions and being found guilty by federal administrative law judges. 

•        It does not address the use of pads and chains (action devices) and heavily weighted shoes – equipment directly associated with soring and the development and maintenance of the Big Lick gait of the “performance horse.” The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners have called for an end to the use of this equipment as a prerequisite to ending horse soring. A shocking 93 percent of HPA violations are in the padded performance segment and involve Big Lick horses.

•        It does not strengthen HPA penalties which are currently so weak they are routinely ignored by those engaged in soring, identified as a key enforcement problem by USDA’s Inspector General.

•        It expressly prohibits application of the Federal Advisory Committee Act to the single HIO. This is a blatant effort to shield discussions between the HIO and USDA, so they can be held in secret with no public input or accountability. Years ago, HIO meetings became subject to the open government rules of FACA and there is no justification for returning to an era of secrecy. 

The people of Tennessee and Kentucky, as much as any people, want real reform. Independent surveys of their attitudes reflect this. Now, Congress, which took the reins and cracked down on dogfighting and cockfighting last month by strengthening the federal law against these spectacles of animal combat, has the same choice with another form of staged cruelty. I am confident that lawmakers and the public have had enough of the horse soring crowd’s gamesmanship and animal abuse, and they’ll do the right thing, starting with the first committee vote on the issue on Wednesday.