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Friday, April 08, 2011

What Would a Government Shutdown Mean for Animals?

A government shutdown is looming if Congress and the White House don’t reach agreement on the budget crisis or pass another short-term extension to fund federal operations by midnight tonight. In a shutdown, “non-essential” federal workers are furloughed, while some “essential” operations continue. Several people have asked how a government shutdown would affect animals, either by suspending critical animal welfare functions or providing a temporary reprieve from government killing programs. Here’s a brief rundown on some of the effects that we expect a shutdown could have on animals:

Dog at a Tennessee puppy mill
Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • Animals in research, puppy mills, and zoos and circuses

Under the Animal Welfare Act, USDA is charged with ensuring that minimum standards of care and treatment are provided by regulated entities (approximately 12,000 sites currently), including research facilities, commercial dog breeders and dealers, and exhibitors of exotic animals. Without federal government funding, USDA will not be able to inspect these facilities to ensure humane care or provide enforcement against violators, meaning puppy mills, research labs, and the like could cut corners and operate recklessly while no one is watching. In addition, USDA momentum on important rulemaking provisions to strengthen Animal Welfare Act protections for puppy mill dogs and other creatures will grind to a halt if a shutdown occurs.

  • Wildlife Services

Annually, USDA’s Wildlife Services program kills tens of thousands of predators on both public and private lands. Predominantly coyotes are killed—regardless of whether they cause any harm to livestock or other property—but also wolves, bears, and mountain lions, as well as non-target victims including endangered species and family pets. WS also poisons millions of starlings and other “nuisance” birds (ironically, often for eating the seeds being grown for bird food). We assume that WS operations will cease during a shutdown, which will provide some relief to wildlife typically targeted through aerial gunning, poisoning, and other inhumane methods. We are extremely concerned, however, about the potential for harm to animals caught in traps and left to suffer for prolonged periods of time if traps lines remain unchecked by furloughed government trappers. If a shutdown occurs, we encourage USDA to disable all traps to prevent animals from suffering and dying of blood loss, exposure to the elements, or predation. 

  • Tennessee Walking Horses

Under the Horse Protection Act, USDA is mandated to ensure that Tennessee Walking Horses are not subjected to the abusive practice of soring—the intentional infliction of pain to a horse’s legs or hooves with chemicals or other substances in order to force an artificial, exaggerated gait. Without federal government funding, USDA oversight and inspection will not be provided at Tennessee Walking Horse shows; USDA will not be able to impose penalties upon violators; and USDA will not be able to move forward rules that the agency is currently drafting to strengthen its horse protection program to prevent cruelty to these horses.

  • Humane slaughter

Slaughter plants cannot conduct slaughter operations without the presence of USDA inspectors overseeing that food safety and humane handling regulations are followed. USDA has told meat industry representatives that front-line inspectors will be designated “essential” if a government shutdown occurs tonight, but most management personnel will be furloughed. When serious humane handling violations occur, inspectors are supposed to notify upper-management, who make the decision to suspend slaughter plant operations. So a shutdown could mean that plants with ongoing violations would continue to operate without this high-level enforcement function in place—potentially allowing serious cruelty to go uninterrupted during the slaughter process. 

  • Wild horses

The Bureau of Land Management has stated that it will not make any determination on whether round-ups of wild horses from the range will occur until a budget for fiscal year 2011 is passed. This includes the wasteful round-ups of horses to place them in long-term government holding pens, but also the more humane and fiscally responsible short-term round-ups needed for the application of fertility control and release of horses to live on the range. We were pleased to hear that even if the government does shut down, the agency has contingency plans in place to feed and care for the more than 40,000 horses already in short and long-term holding facilities.

  • National wildlife refuges

In response to our concerns about poaching of wildlife at national wildlife refuges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained that law enforcement staff will be considered “essential” employees during a government shutdown. There will be at least one agent on duty at every refuge that normally has an officer (currently, there are only 400 officers for 553 refuges). Patrolling vast amounts of land with scarce resources, these officers are the last line of defense to prevent illegal killing of wildlife.

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