Protecting American Horses

Posted by on Jan 20, 2011 in Animals & the Law | 1 comment

Along with the morning report on weather and ski trails, each day during our stay in Jackson Hole, I picked up the Jackson Hole Daily paper, intrigued by the local news as much as national current events. The local paper had some fantastic front-page pics of local wildlife, including one of some bighorn sheep having a skirmish with each other on the National Elk Refuge. A long way from city life and the urban culture I know best, I’m always impressed by how much towns like Jackson Hole appreciate wildlife and place it in the spotlight.

A front-page story that was unfolding while we were spending our time on the slopes was the first Summit of the Horse conference that was being held in Las Vegas that week. Despite its name, this conference was hardly in any horse’s interest. Rather, it was big-business all the way: ranchers, breeders, and lawmakers were gathering to discuss wild horse round-ups and strategies for reviving the slaughter and processing of horses for food. Ugh.

Wild Horse Round-Ups
Thousands of beautiful wild mustangs and other horses live on government land, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.  Round-ups are the Bureau’s answer to population management. However, with each round-up, many frightened and frantic horses die, and pregnant mares spontaneously abort. While the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act supposedly offers protection, the Bureau over the years has reduced the open range for wild horses by 20 million acres. And horses subjected to the brutal round-up operations face helicopter stampedes where they are removed from the land and herded into government holding facilities. The lucky ones might be adopted; but because there are so many horses and not nearly enough homes, many end up being sold outside of the U.S. for slaughter. The Bureau of Land Management needs to find a new, non-lethal way to “manage”; and the horses need some of that 20 million acres back.

Horse Slaughter for Consumption
In 2007, the last three horse slaughterhouses in the United States were closed. However, thousands of American horses still are transported in atrocious conditions for the purpose of  slaughter, so that their meat can be sold in other countries (such as Mexico, France, Belgium, and Japan) for human consumption. It may surprise you to find out that it’s actually only illegal in TWO states to slaughter horses for human consumption; and, with the economy hurting small farmers and big business alike, there’s movement on the state level to revitalize the slaughter industry here in the United States. Despite legislative efforts such as the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, and the more recent Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act, horses still lack the protection by law that they need. Specifically, we need a federal law that would prohibit the trade and transport of horse meat or live horses that are intended for slaughter for consumption. (Horse meat also is used in pet food and food for carnivores in zoo facilities.)

w/Jack & Jill at the National Elk Refuge

While some try to argue that horses used for slaughter and sale are a viable economic resource, are a viable source of food for people who need it, and that the slaughter of horses can be carried out in a “humane” way, my only response is this: if we could really have a “summit of the horses” where they had a say regarding their own fate, I’m sure they would say slaughter — in any shape or form — is not humane. As many people who have horses as companion animals know, these living beings are full of personality and spirit and affection.  While I was growing up, my Uncle Frankie had horses that were among my first friends in this lifetime. One of my very first words was “Smokey” — the name of one of my uncle’s horses. Over the years, I’ve ridden and had many conversations with horses that have come into my life. Horses are my friends!

Thankfully, many citizens work tirelessly towards the creation and enforcement of laws that will protect our horses. However, with powerful interest groups gathering, it’s clear this is an area of law that we all need to keep our eyes on, to make sure proponents of horse slaughter and their lobbying efforts don’t undermine the increasing public awareness and support.

*UPDATE: December 1, 2011. The ban on horse slaughter has been lifted. On November 18th, The Agricultural Appropriations bill was signed by President Obama (see Huffington Post article for details). I have contacted my federal legislators, and I encourage everyone to do the same: ask them to cosponsor the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (S. 1176/H.R. 2966). This Humane Society of the United States page makes it easy to lend our voices and send a message to the appropriate legislators (based on zip code). It only takes a couple of minutes — and it can make a huge difference to these beautiful horses.

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Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act

Posted by on Jan 10, 2011 in Animals & the Law | 0 comments

The Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act (AETA) is a law that many people don’t know exists. Nevertheless, the law raises some substantial constitutional concerns. The AETA makes it a crime for anyone to use force, violence, and threats “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” An animal enterprise is any setting that involves animals — a pharmaceutical company, a medical laboratory, a university, or even a retail pet store. Primarily, what’s at stake is an individual’s right, under the First Amendment, to free speech. While it’s important to note that the right to free speech is not absolute, the judicial constraints on speech are very limited (i.e., fighting words), and any restrictions based on viewpoint (content-based) are not tolerated. So, unless the speech of an individual presents a “clear and imminent” danger, the speech should still fall within the protection of the First Amendment.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and proponents of the AETA will bring up that, in addition to categories of speech that are unprotected, the Court has established that “time, place, and manner” restrictions on expression may sometimes be warranted. For example, protests outside medical clinics have some lawful restrictions placed upon them, as does approaching people and distributing leaflets inside airports. Restrictions also may be initiated through legislature: just last month, Washington D.C.’s City Council deemed it unlawful for protestors outside private residences to wear masks and to conduct protests after 10pm. While these restrictions may seem quite reasonable, the vagueness of the AETA, unfortunately, creates the possibility of its use against citizens who are simply exercising their right to voice dissent, without their ever being directly involved in carrying out activities that cause economic damage or disruption. And the penalties of being labeled a “domestic terrorist” can be severe.

In the seminal case United States v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (2006), seven individuals were charged with violating the AEPA (at the time, still titled the Animal Enterprises Protection Act) and some of them received long prison sentences because of the enhanced charge. In addition to First Amendment concerns raised by the law, concern that the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment remains a hot topic of debate. While it is undeniably important to protect businesses, their employees, and affiliates, the right to express alternative viewpoints is a cornerstone of our democracy. Even more tragic than any potential economic disruption would be the silencing — out of fear of prosecution — of those who would otherwise lend their voices to the animals that so desperately need our help.

For a comprehensive look at this law, check out the book Muzzling a Movement, by Dara Lovitz.

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Animal Hoarding

Posted by on Jan 6, 2011 in Animals & the Law | 0 comments

The Animal Legal Defense Fund identifies animal hoarding as the number one animal cruelty crisis facing companion animals in communities throughout the country.  ALDF, similar to other sources offering statistics, states that up to 250,000 animals — mostly cats and dogs — suffer from neglect and abuse as a result of animal hoarding each year.  However, because hoarding situations often have to reach extremes before anyone knows about them, many cases go unreported.

The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium lists the following characteristics as common in all hoarders:

  • Having more than the typical number of companion animals
  • Failing to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care
  • Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact the failure has on the animals, household, and humans living in the conditions
  • Persistence in accumulating animals

More than just a matter of how many animals a person is keeping, it becomes a matter of his keeping more animals than he is able to care for.  As a result, the animals suffer from severe malnutrition, illnesses and infections that are not given the medical attention they require, and death.

In terms of legal protection, companion animals generally are protected from abuse and neglect by each state’s criminal cruelty statute.  However, these statutes usually include intent as a requisite element for prosecution.  For this reason, dealing with animal hoarders who are, by definition, in denial of the effects of their hoarding behavior, becomes problematic. To date, two states have attempted to address animal hoarding directly through the revision of the existing statute or the creation of an altogether new one: Illinois added the definition of a companion animal hoarder to its criminal statute and now includes mandated counseling; Hawaii created a new statute that tried to more clearly define animal hoarding by focusing on the number of animals found on the scene.

While changes in the law are laudable, an integrative approach that also addresses some of the more unique aspects of animal hoarding is worth considering.  In places where community courts and mental health courts are available, these might be a more effective means of addressing the problem and preventing recidivism.  Without counseling and follow-up visits, hoarders are almost certain to return to their destructive behavioral patterns.  Rather than focusing on punishing the individual, the key to ending the cycle of suffering is getting the individual the help he needs.  At the same time, we also need to help law enforcement officers so that they are better prepared to recognize and handle animal hoarding situations. A good example of how we can do this is the Safe Humane Chicago program.  Best Friends Animal Society, in partnership with the Chicago Police Department, is educating officers one precinct at a time by providing short, informative sessions at the start of  a department’s shift.  Finally, another alternative approach to the criminal justice system, exemplified in the North Carolina case of ALDF v. Woodley, would allow a private citizen to file civil charges against an animal hoarder — a civil suit with the goal of gaining custody of the animals and putting a stop to the behavior.

Animal hoarding presents a serious animal welfare issue, and also a human welfare issue.  And it’s a problem that requires professional assistance.  If you have a family member or friend who has an animal hoarding problem, I urge you to help the animals and humans involved by calling your local humane organization, police department, or animal control services.

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