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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

See No Evil: Dogfighting Spectator Law Already Making a Difference

I’m pleased to report that the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, which we worked with Congress to enact last year, is now having a tangible impact in the field and helping to crack down on the entire cast of characters involved in animal fighting. This week, eight people were convicted under federal law for attending a dogfight in Akron, Ohio.

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The HSUS

Last November, police raided what the Cleveland Plain Dealer called a nationwide dogfighting ring. Forty-seven people were arrested. Ten were charged in federal court, and the rest are being prosecuted in state court.

The spectators who had crossed state lines to attend the match were charged federally, along with the two chief organizers of the fights that were held that night.

Eight dogs were seized in the raid, including two who were already bloodied and were fighting in a 16-by-16-foot pit when law enforcement descended on the property.

Animal fighting routinely goes hand in hand with other crimes, and this was no exception. Narcotics and $52,000 in gambling cash were confiscated. One convicted felon was charged with being in possession of a firearm.This was a highly organized operation, and fight organizers even sold concessions and dogfighting paraphernalia to attendees.

These latest convictions show that while much of our work involves passing laws to protect animals, it’s equally important that those laws be properly enforced. Thanks to the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, it’s now a federal crime to attend or bring a child to an animal fight.

This was the fourth upgrade of the federal animal fighting statute since 2002, as we’ve worked to close gaps in the legal framework and strengthen the penalties for dogfights and cockfights.

With the FBI now tracking animal cruelty crimes in the Uniform Crime Reporting database, and agencies like the National Sheriffs’ Association speaking out forcefully against animal cruelty, we should see more enforcement of all animal cruelty laws. Animal fighting crimes are particularly well suited for federal prosecution because animal fighting almost always involves interstate activity.

In another high-profile example, federal investigators closed down a major cockfighting pit in Pikeville, Kentucky, last year and found that participants in that operation came from dozens of states.

Those out of state attendees even included members of organized criminal gangs like the Mexican Mafia. The evidence is clear. Animal fighting is a lose-lose endeavor for the animals as well as for the communities where the crimes are staged.

It also demonstrates why strong federal and state laws are both needed and complementary in the effort to crack down on animal fighting. Sometimes the fights are multi-state and multi-jurisdictional, and participants might be charged under federal law, or state law, or both. We are grateful to the lawmakers who helped shepherd through this new spectator animal fighting provision in the last Congress, thus providing one more important tool for law enforcement.

Of course, much more needs to be done across the country. The Tennessee House of Representatives may vote this week on a bill that would strengthen the state’s animal fighting law. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has written to every member of the Tennessee House, urging them to support efforts to stiffen the penalties for animal fighting.

It’s far too early to declare victory over dogfighting and cockfighting. Some states maintain absurdly low penalties for cockfighting. And dogfighting is still pervasive in some quarters—just two weeks ago Montana lawmakers rejected an effort to criminalize being a spectator at a dogfight.

But we can take heart in the fact that animal fighting laws are getting tougher, law enforcement is paying attention, and a growing chorus of voices is saying that this cruelty must end.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Montana: The Nation’s Safe Haven for Dogfighting Boosters

In 49 states all across America, it’s a crime to attend a dogfight. Our federal law also includes penalties for spectators who finance dogfights with their gambling wagers and admission fees.

There is a consensus in our country that animal fighting statutes should punish the entire cast of characters involved in the criminal enterprise, including the spectators who make it profitable.

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Frank Loftus/The HSUS

Which state is the one outlier? Montana. The Big Sky State is now the Big Dogfighting Spectator State.

Lawmakers there had an opportunity to close the dogfighting spectator loophole this year and bring Montana’s animal fighting laws into line with those of the rest of the nation.

The bipartisan legislation had passed the House by a vote of 74 to 25, but it failed yesterday—20 to 27—when the Senate took up the issue.

It’s shameful that 27 senators and 25 representatives voted to give dogfighting participants carte blanche.

They sided with criminals and with the nation’s most despicable form of cruelty.

Some of the opponents of this legislation raised the specter that penalties for dogfighting spectators could magically mutate into penalties for people who attend rodeos. Never mind that every other state in the West, where rodeo is popular, punishes people who attend dogfights. 

Most of them—like Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming—have penalties for cockfighting spectators, too. None of those state laws have ever impacted rodeo, or anything other than illegal animal fights. Their argument is worse than folly.

The Billings Gazette was one of many papers that had demanded that legislators act and eliminate the state’s outlier status on this issue: 

Being a spectator at a dogfight also is illegal in 49 states. Montana is the only state that has failed to close this loophole that allows people to profit from horrendous violence against dogs…

The present statute already makes clear that “causing animals to fight” doesn’t include accepted husbandry practices in raising livestock or poultry, normal rodeo events or hunting.

Spectators provide much of the profit associated with dogfighting. The money generated by admission fees and gambling helps keep this “sport” alive. Because dogfights are illegal and therefore not widely publicized, spectators do not merely happen upon a fight; they seek it out. They are willing participants who support a criminal activity through their paid admission and attendance.

“If you don’t have a penalty for being a spectator, everyone becomes a spectator,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Tom Richmond, R-Billings. “It’s like a kegger where everyone scatters.”

If you live in Montana, see how your senators and representatives voted on the bill. If they voted “yea,” they were on the side of cracking down on dogfighting and rooting this vicious cruelty out from our communities. If they voted “nay,” they sided with criminal dogfighters, and the bloodthirsty degenerates who enjoy watching these helpless animals forced into a pit to fight each other and slowly die of their injuries.

These legislators gave dogfighting enthusiasts a free pass, and they shouldn’t get a free pass from their constituents. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Animal Fighting Suffers a Knockdown

It’s been a big week in our major campaign to crack down on the brutal bloodsport of animal fighting.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill into law on Monday establishing felony penalties for repeat cockfighting offenders. Utah was previously the only state in the west without a felony cockfighting law, making it a magnet for animal fighters seeking to escape tougher punishment in neighboring states. Similar bills to fortify the law were blocked in the legislature for the past two years, but now Utah is the 42nd state with a felony cockfighting law.

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The HSUS

In Tennessee—one of only eight remaining states where cockfighting is a misdemeanor, and in the heart of the “cockfighting corridor”—the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee yesterday passed a bill to strengthen the penalties for attending or bringing a child to an animal fight.

The legislation had previously passed the state Senate by a landslide vote of 24 to 1, and we are urging the full House to approve it swiftly.

Over the weekend, The Humane Society of the United States assisted law enforcement in Marlboro County, South Carolina, in breaking up an active cockfight, resulting in the arrest of 27 suspected cockfighters and the rescue of 122 gamefowl and one emaciated pit bull with 10 puppies. Remarkably, the mother dog, Nina Louise, had been stolen from her home more than a year ago and was reunited with her owner, who had seen the news coverage of the cockfighting bust.

The Post and Courier in Charleston in an editorial yesterday called on South Carolina lawmakers to get tougher on cockfighting, quoting Marlboro County Sheriff Fred Knight: “The fights themselves are inhumane for the animals involved, but so many crimes come about at these events.” The paper reported that three children were present at the Marlboro raid.

Legislation advanced in the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to close the loophole that made that state the last one in the Union where it’s legal to attend a dogfight. It had previously passed the House by a vote of 74 to 25.

We are very close to having a national policy whose purpose, as the Billings Gazette wrote in an editorial, “is to discourage animal fights, and to ensure that, if fights are held, the instigators will be held accountable.”

These are long-term battles, and we are marching state by state to close the gaps in the legal framework on animal fighting. Other state legislatures in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Vermont are working to fortify their already strong animal fighting statutes this year.

In the mid-1980s, only a dozen states had felony dogfighting statutes and a half dozen still permitted legal cockfighting. Our movement lobbied state legislatures, and passed ballot measures against cockfighting in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma, to make cockfighting illegal in every state and dogfighting a felony in every state.

We also worked with the U.S. Congress to upgrade the federal animal fighting statute four times in the last 12 years, making it a federal felony to fight animals, possess them for fighting, or to bring a child to an animal fighting spectacle.

There is a growing consensus in society that it’s wrong to force two animals into a pit to fight to the death, often pumped full of drugs to heighten their aggression, and with razor-sharp knives and weapons strapped to their legs, just to place gambling bets and entertain people who are titillated by the violence and bloodletting.

Even Matt Bevin, who as a U.S. Senate candidate last year spoke at a rally to legalize cockfighting in Kentucky, now says that cockfighting should be a felony in the state. These political changes are bringing us closer to eradicating dogfighting and cockfighting in the U.S., a day that cannot come soon enough.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Arizonans Rally to Keep Cruelty Code Intact

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey exercised his first veto in office last night, and with a stroke of his pen, he nixed a misguided and dangerous bill that would have bifurcated the state’s anti-cruelty statute—creating one set of rules for companion animals and another, weaker, one for farm animals and horses.

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The HSUS

As I wrote last week, this power grab by Big Ag also would have taken away local control from municipalities and badly complicated efforts by whistleblowers to expose abuse on factory farms.

Gov. Ducey’s powerful veto message underscores the public concern for animal cruelty and the importance of including all animals in our social values and legal framework.

He wrote:

I know we all agree that animal cruelty is inexcusable, unacceptable and absolutely will not be tolerated in the state of Arizona. No animal should be the victim of abuse. Moreover, perpetrators must be held to account and properly penalized to the fullest extent of the law.

While the sponsors and supporters of this bill are well-intentioned, when changing state laws relating to the safety and well-being of animals, we must ensure that all animals are protected, and mindful that increasing protections for one class of animals does not inadvertently undercut protections for another.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund had endorsed Ducey in the Republican primary race, largely because of his positive statements and pledges on animal welfare and enforcement.

He published a policy statement during the campaign noting, “I do not support exemptions in our anti-cruelty codes for any class of domesticated animals. No animal should be the victim of unspeakable cruelty.”

Here’s a politician who stood by his campaign promises—taking on Big Ag with his action.The Arizona legislature’s sop to the factory farming industry, carving out exemptions for some classes of animals, was in direct contradiction to the governor’s position statement.

We are extremely grateful to Gov. Ducey for standing firm on this issue and ensuring that all animals, including those raised for food, continue to be afforded legal protections in the Grand Canyon State.

It’s also a testament to the importance of citizen action and constituent communications. Arizona Republic political reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez tweeted last night:

.@dougducey's office received 19,251 constituent contacts on animal cruelty bill. Of those 19,248 were against it; three were supportive.

That’s an incredible outpouring from citizens who care about the humane treatment of animals. Your calls, letters, and emails do make a difference.

It’s a big public policy win for animals in Arizona, but in the broader sense, it illustrates the importance of animal advocates being involved in the political process, taking action as citizen lobbyists, and organizing a grassroots political force at the local, state, and federal levels.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Big Ag’s Power Grab in the Grand Canyon State

Factory farming profiteers know that consumers and voters care about animal welfare, and they increasingly try to dress up their activities and business models as having the best interests of animals in mind.

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The HSUS

They talk about gestation crates keeping pigs safe from each other—of course, if you lived your life in a closet you’d never get hit by a car, but it wouldn’t be much of a life.

They introduce “ag-gag” bills requiring anyone who documents or records animal abuse to turn such evidence over to authorities immediately. It sounds good at first blush, but in practice it prevents whistleblowers from documenting a pattern of abuse that’s not easily dismissed as a fluke incident. And so on.

Their latest gambit of deception is unfolding in Arizona, where the legislature has passed House Bill 2150, which contains some red herring provisions to give it the illusion of being pro-animal welfare. In reality, the bill would negatively impact the welfare of millions of animals in Arizona, and it serves no good purpose for the state, from any perspective. Among other things:

• It removes farm animals from the regular animal cruelty code and puts them in a separate code, where the industry can more readily weaken those standards in the future.
• It strips municipalities and counties of their right to promulgate stronger animal welfare protections.
• It would remove the crimes of “abandonment” and “medical neglect” for livestock and poultry, placing a heavier burden on prosecutors and law enforcement when they confront these situations.
• It has whistleblower-suppression implications that could prevent food safety issues and animal abuse on factory farms from being exposed.

As Linda Valdez wrote in the Arizona Republic,

Like so much of what Arizona's lawmakers are doing this year, the bill also weakens local control by prohibiting "a county, city or town from enacting an ordinance that relates to the treatment of livestock, poultry or animal husbandry practices that is more prohibitive or restrictive than current law."

This would prevent cities from banning backyard slaughter of animals. Nor could local communities step in to correct other animal husbandry "practices" that might occur across the alley from your house.

The Arizona Humane Society is among the many groups opposing this legislation, noting that all animals, including horses and farm animals, deserve humane treatment. The group wrote:

Even a child in kindergarten knows that cattle, sheep and horses are animals. However, under HB2150, livestock and poultry would be excluded from Arizona’s definition of animals found in our criminal code. Since they will no longer be considered animals, the 13 categories of animal abuse currently on the books will no longer protect these animals.

Arizona voters share this view and have sided with animal protection time and again in statewide elections to ban cockfighting, restrict steel-jawed leghold traps, and improve the treatment of animals on factory farms. In 2006, voters passed Proposition 204, banning the use of veal crates and pig gestation crates, with an overwhelming 62 percent of the vote, and it was favored in 12 of the state’s 15 counties.

For special interest groups to try to remove anti-cruelty protections for farm animals now flies in the face of what Arizonans want. It’s also an affront to the democratic process through which generations of Arizonans have sought to include animals within the protective ambit of their state’s laws and value set.

When Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ran for office last year, he issued a policy statement outlining his views on animal welfare and enforcement, declaring, “I do not support exemptions in our anti-cruelty codes for any class of domesticated animals. No animal should be the victim of unspeakable cruelty.”

He was right. And he should veto this power grab by the state legislature that would gut the cruelty law with loopholes and exemptions, take away local control from municipalities, and put so many animals at risk. That kind of maneuvering has no place in a modern world, one in which the needs of animals have become a matter of serious social, cultural, and political importance.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tiger Loopholes Put People and Animals at Risk

There is a crisis with captive tigers across the nation, and the Obama administration must do something about it.

By some estimates there are more tigers living in the United States today than there are remaining in the wild in Asia, because of federal loopholes that encourage reckless overbreeding and public handling of the animals. These tigers are kept in inhumane conditions at shoddy roadside zoos, are funneled into the exotic pet trade, and even dragged to shopping malls and fairs for photo ops.

Photo by The HSUS
Tigers are kept in inhumane conditions at shoddy roadside zoos, and are funneled into the exotic pet trade. Photo by The HSUS

While tigers are endangered in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently exempts mixed lineage or “generic” tigers from registration under its captive-bred wildlife regulations. Because of this lack of regulation the total number of tigers in our communities is unknown, and nearly all of them are held at unaccredited breeding facilities, substandard roadside zoos, pseudo-sanctuaries, traveling zoos, private menageries, and as personal pets.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule in 2011 to close the loophole and regulate generic tigers, but nearly four years later that rule is still languishing. It’s time for the administration to act and give these generic tigers the same legal protections as purebred tigers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, too, must prohibit the public from handling and having direct interaction with big cats, bears, and primates. In one of the most extreme cases of government being totally disconnected from the real world, the USDA has previously suggested that it’s acceptable for members of the public to hold and cuddle tiger cubs during a short window when the animals are between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks old.

This encourages the constant breeding of tigers so there’s a steady supply of infant cubs available for photos and interaction with the public at roadside zoos and shopping malls across the country. When the baby tigers grow up and become dangerous and difficult to handle, they’re dumped, with some ending up at sanctuaries and nonprofit animal welfare groups across the country that must then spend millions of dollars to care for them for up to 15 or 20 years. Far too many animals are in crisis because our laws still permit the private ownership and overbreeding of dangerous predators by reckless individuals—and it’s the rest of society, including government agencies and taxpayers, who have to clean up the mess.

In the last 24 years, four children have been killed and 66 have lost limbs or suffered other injuries in incidents involving captive big cats. Eighteen adults have been killed in similar incidents during that time, and many others have been mauled. To date there’ve been more than 330 recorded cases of dangerous interactions with big cats, with cases in almost every state since 1990.

The USDA has been considering a petition to close this dangerous loophole since 2012, but once again, it’s been years with no action. How many more tragedies will occur, and how many more millions of dollars will be spent caring for cast-off tigers, before the Obama Administration takes action? Closing the loopholes on generic tigers and public contact will make our communities safer, help animal welfare, and save taxpayers from footing the bill for this reckless trade. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

PAWS Act Would Protect Pets in Abusive Homes

Earlier this week, U.S. Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) reintroduced a critical piece of legislation to help domestic violence victims and their beloved pets. The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, H.R. 1258, would amend the Violence Against Women Act to extend existing federal domestic violence protections to four-legged family members.

Only three percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide currently allow pets. Just like many pet owners stayed behind during Hurricane Katrina and put themselves at risk because they couldn’t bring their pets with them, many battered women remain in dangerous situations rather than leave a beloved pet behind with an abusive spouse or partner. The PAWS Act establishes a grant program so that domestic violence shelters can make accommodations for victims' pets, keeping endangered women and their pets both safe and together.

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The PAWS Act establishes a grant program so that domestic violence shelters can make accommodations for victims' pets. Photo: iStockphoto

Twenty-eight states have enacted pet protective order legislation, allowing courts to include pets in restraining orders that prevent suspected abusers from having access to their victims. But under these differing state laws, what happens when a domestic violence victim must go to live with family in another state where pets are not covered under protective orders? The PAWS Act establishes a national policy on the issue and encourages states to expand their legal protections for pets in abusive households.

Domestic violence and animal cruelty often go hand in hand. A seminal study in 1997 found that between 71 and 83 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their partners had threatened, injured, or killed the family pet. For abusers, harming or threatening to harm a beloved dog or cat is a way of exerting control and intimidation, trading on the victim’s emotional connection with a pet, and using that love as a lever to prevent an escape from an abusive and sometimes life-threatening situation.

Last year, a Campbellton, Fla., man was charged with aggravated animal cruelty after he severely abused the family’s dog. He chased the dog with a rifle, forced her onto the porch, and shot her twice. After he ran out of ammunition, he beat the dog with the rifle, and later with an ax, until she was dead. He was also charged with aggravated assault and domestic violence toward his live-in girlfriend.

In Amsterdam, N.Y., a man slit the throat of his girlfriend’s cat and threw the cat out a window. Two days later, he attempted to strangle his girlfriend.

The examples are endless and horrifying, illustrating a direct link between animal cruelty and violence against people. Those who torture and abuse animals are the ones most likely to physically harm a human family member.

The PAWS Act has 49 bipartisan cosponsors in the House, and is supported by a number of animal welfare, law enforcement, and domestic violence organizations. Please ask your U.S. representative to cosponsor this common sense legislation and help pass it swiftly. There is simply no reason to deny these protections to pets, and the people who love them. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Lawmakers Howl for Problem Solving on Wolf Protection

While some members of Congress continue to demagogue the wolf issue, calling for the complete removal of federal protections and a return to overreaching and reckless state management plans that resulted in sport hunting, trapping, and hounding of hundreds of wolves, 79 of their colleagues in the House of Representatives yesterday urged a more reasonable and constructive approach.

Led by House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the 79 House members sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to support a petition by The Humane Society of the United States and 21 other wolf conservation and animal protection groups to downlist the gray wolf from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, rather than removing their federal protections entirely.

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A threatened listing for wolves would allow more management without ceding control entirely to state agencies that have consistently demonstrated an overreaching and cruel hand in dealing with the animals. Photo: Alamy

“I have always strongly supported this Administration’s efforts to protect and conserve endangered species because the Fish and Wildlife Service backs up its decisions and actions with sound science,” Congressman Grijalva said. “Unfortunately, I fear that’s not the case this time. Gray wolves are still subject to intense persecution where they are not protected. They currently inhabit only five percent of their historical range and are clearly still threatened with extinction. This downlisting is the right way to make sure they get the continued legal protection they need.”

The group sending the letter included four Republicans—Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), and Chris Smith (R-N.J.)—and five lawmakers from the Great Lakes states where the wolf issue has been so high-profile—Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Sander Levin (D-Mich.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). As they wrote in yesterday’s letter:

“The Service’s focus on removing wolves from the endangered species list not only ignores sciences but also poses a direct threat to the credibility of the agency and the long-term viability of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is time for a new approach for wolves that more closely aligns with those that have resulted in the successful recovery of species such as the bald eagle.”

“We view a legislative delisting as an extreme proposal that is at odds with the intent of the ESA and the wishes of our constituents.…Undermining the law and the Department’s credibility in this manner would set a damaging precedent and would cripple our ability to protect and recover other threatened and endangered species in the future.”

“As an alternative, we urge you to direct the Service to follow the science and the law and modify the June 2013 proposed delisting of gray wolves to instead downlist the species to threatened status. This approach would allow states significantly increased certainty and flexibility in managing wolves within their borders while also ensuring that the species can continue to recover in suitable areas.”

Lawmakers should look for practical solutions to problems, and find a reasonable pathway forward to settle contentious policy issues when possible. This proposal does just that, and it balances federal oversight and protections for wolves with more flexibility to manage wolf conflicts, including the depredation of livestock. A threatened listing would allow more management without ceding control entirely to state agencies that have consistently demonstrated an overreaching and cruel hand in dealing with wolves.

We are grateful to these members of Congress for advocating for this rational, middle-ground approach that balances wolf protection with the practical realities of dealing with the occasional problem wolf. The Obama administration should embrace this compromise solution, and help to settle the issue and find balance in the wolf wars.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Little Engine That Could Carry Pets

The first animal protection bill of the 114th Congress is on track and leaving the station.

wrote last month about the introduction of the Pets on Trains Act, H.R. 674, by Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and the practical impact this reasonable legislation would have on the lives of many pets and their families, especially in regions of the country where train travel is the most affordable or most convenient option. Today I’m pleased to report that the House of Representatives took up and passed a larger bill to reauthorize passenger rail programs and appropriate funds for Amtrak for the next four years, and included in that package is the provision directing Amtrak to allow pets on trains.

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There would be reasonable requirements for pet owners, such as keeping the pet in a kennel or carrier. Photo: iStockphoto
In a time of partisan rancor and gridlock in Congress, it’s especially encouraging to see a broadly supported reform that all sides can agree deserves to get out of the gate. When you can take your dog or cat on an airplane, and stay with your pet in many hotels, it makes little sense that you still can’t have a companion animal travel with your family on a passenger train.

Under the legislation, Amtrak would be required to develop a policy for people to travel with their pets, and to designate, where feasible, at least one car of each passenger train in which a ticketed passenger may transport a dog or cat. There would be reasonable requirements for pet owners who want to take advantage of this policy, such as keeping the pet in a kennel or carrier, traveling less than 750 miles, and paying a fee that covers the cost of administering the policy. The bill gives Amtrak the flexibility to develop the details of the policy to best fit the service and their customers. Just as you don’t have to sit in the quiet car if you’d rather  talk on your cell phone, you won’t have to sit in the car that allows pets if you have allergies or other concerns.

As Congressman Denham—who often travels with his 15-pound French bulldog, Lily—argued on the House floor, this legislation could attract new customers who previously wanted to ride Amtrak but opted for other travel arrangements because they couldn’t bring their pets with them. And it could be a profit generator for the train operator, as Americans are spending more every year on their pets and may want to take their best friend along on vacation or business travel.

Last year, in response to the awareness created by the bill, Amtrak launched a pilot program in Illinois to test the idea of allowing pets on passenger trains. As Congressman Denham said, “This legislation builds on the success of that pilot program and would help families nationwide save money and time in traveling with their pets while bringing in much-needed revenue for Amtrak.”

Now that it’s passed the House, we hope the Senate will get all aboard and pass this common-sense legislation, which won’t cost the federal government or Amtrak any additional funds, but will help millions of American pet owners and strengthen the human-animal bond.

 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Guest Post: Some Veterinarians Barking Up the Wrong Tree

There are 23 million dogs and cats living in poverty in the United States, and their families often don’t have access to basic wellness services like vaccinations and spaying and neutering.  Low-cost clinics and nonprofit organizations are providing a critical public service for these pets and their families, who most likely would otherwise never get to see a veterinarian.

As Nonprofit Quarterly reports, some veterinarians and other trade groups like dentists are trying to crack down on nonprofits within their respective fields. This fight is playing out in Alabama and other state legislatures around the country, and today I’d like to turn the blog over to my colleague Dr. Michael Blackwell, whose guest column on AL.com makes the point that a rising tide lifts all boats in the veterinary profession.  

He is the former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, and chief veterinarian of the U.S. Public Health Service. Here’s Dr. Blackwell's take on the issue: 

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The HSUS

Imagine trying to shut down a homeless shelter because it gives people a free bed for the night, undercutting business at the Best Western; or claiming that a person who donates free blankets is unfairly stealing away the linen market from Dillard's. Is a soup kitchen driving down sales at Applebee's? What about a doctor who volunteers at a free clinic for the poor—how dare he deprive the HMOs and insurance companies of those customers?

As absurd as it sounds, that's the argument some veterinarians are making in their zeal to shut down nonprofit and low-cost veterinary clinics for struggling pet owners. Unhappy with economic realities, some veterinarians are casting blame on the good-hearted souls within their own profession who work with animal welfare groups to make sure poor and financially strapped families have access to care for their pets.

By blaming nonprofits, veterinarians are barking up the wrong tree. They are seeking even more government regulation of one of the most highly regulated industries. In fact, what the veterinary profession needs is not more government interference, but more tolerance for free-market principles.

Rather than competing with established veterinarians, nonprofit organizations and low-cost services are reaching a new audience of pet owners and introducing them to veterinary services for the first time, expanding the overall universe of veterinary customers and responsible pet owners.

One program providing free spay and neuter and veterinary wellness services for families in poverty-stricken communities nationwide found that 83 percent of patients had never before seen a veterinarian. When these families see a veterinarian for the first time and have a positive experience, they may become lifetime veterinary customers.

A 2011 study by Bayer found six primary reasons for the decline in visits to private veterinary practices:

1. Pet owners are still feeling the impact of the recent recession, even while most veterinarians increased their fees during that period.

2. The number of veterinarians practicing companion animal medicine increased dramatically from 1996 through 2006, far outpacing the growth in cat and dog ownership.

3. Many consumers rely on Internet advice rather than a visit to the veterinarian.

4. The majority of cat owners do not take their cats to the veterinarian because they think it's unnecessary or too difficult.

5. Many pet owners still believe that regular medical check-ups are not needed and many consumers cite "sticker shock," thinking veterinary costs too high.

What wasn't on the list? The existence of nonprofit and low-cost veterinary service providers. These entities are providing a public service, helping to reduce the surplus of unwanted and homeless animals through spay and neuter programs, reducing the number of pets surrendered to shelters and euthanized, and reducing public health threats through rabies vaccinations, parasite control, and other wellness services.

Their work is reducing the burden on municipal agencies and taxpayers. Veterinarians working in non-profit clinics are still veterinarians and are subject to the same licensing, credentialing and oversight standards as any other practicing professional in the field. It's also worth noting that doctors who work with the poor or provide vaccines in developing nations are celebrated, not scorned.

Veterinarians who use their skill, talent and expertise to perform a public service that benefits society should be valued in the same way.

Lawmakers should reject the scare tactics by veterinarians who want to over regulate their own industry and push out veterinarians that are providing good services in the public's interest. It's time to pass legislation formally recognizing that veterinarians should be able to work for nonprofit organizations that help animals, just like they can already work for laboratories, farms, and other enterprises.

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