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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Presidential Files: Mike Huckabee's Do-Nothing Approach to Protecting Animals

The presidential primaries are nearly upon us, and it’s time to take stock of the candidates on animal protection issues. The Humane Society Legislative Fund has queried all the major candidates and asked for their positions on animal welfare, and has also examined the records of those who served in Congress or as governor.   

For this first entry I’m going to take a look at former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who has been surging in the polls and who is in the news today for his son’s alleged history of animal cruelty.  Huckabee was the state’s chief executive for more than a decade, and was largely viewed by animal advocates as an impediment to moderate reforms, or at the very least, someone who never lifted a finger to advance animal welfare.  The governor’s record on animal issues was further tarnished in 1998 when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Huckabee’s 17-year-old son, David, was fired from his job as a Boy Scout camp counselor because he and another teen allegedly killed a stray dog.  Animal protection groups reported that the boys hanged the dog, slit his throat, and stoned him to death—but the teens were never charged with any crime.

I generally believe the lives of candidates’ family members are off limits, and I cringe every time the media scrutinizes Chelsea Clinton or the Bush twins. But there are some aspects of history that are pertinent, and this is one of them. It’s especially relevant because it has policy implications on animal cruelty issues, and there are accusations that Governor Huckabee personally mishandled the situation. And for HSLF, any indication of a family tolerance for malicious animal cruelty sets off alarm bells—cruelty to animals is a sign of an empathic disconnect and is often an indicator of broader violent tendencies.

The story about Huckabee's son has been circulating on some blogs, like Dogster for the Love of Dog Blog and The Real Mike Huckabee, but new information has come to light. At the time of the camp incident, a local prosecutor apparently asked the Arkansas State Police to investigate whether David Huckabee violated state anti-cruelty laws. Newsweek broke the story this week that the former director of the state police, John Bailey, says that Huckabee’s chief of staff and personal attorney leaned on him to drop the investigation.  According to Bailey, he refused to play ball, and was fired seven months later. It seems that the governor tried to stop the state police from investigating the cruelty charges against his son, and Bailey’s story is corroborated by the former FBI chief in Little Rock. 

At worst, the governor acted unethically and obstructed the police investigation, but even at best, Huckabee and his staff took a “boys will be boys” attitude toward malicious animal abuse.  The governor’s then-chief of staff Brenda Turner belittled the accusations, asking, “Is it normal for the state police to…investigate something that happened at a Boy Scout camp?” Well, it should be. The public wants nothing less, in fact. The Michael Vick case demonstrates what happens when the justice system is allowed to work and when animal cruelty is taken seriously—a star quarterback is brought down to serve a 23-month prison sentence, an example for countless thousands of young Americans. The Huckabee case shows what happens when the system is thwarted—or when cruelty doesn't occupy a serious place in the political arena.   

This flippant attitude toward a heinous act has apparently presented itself in Huckabee's views toward state policies on cruelty to animals. During Huckabee’s administration, Arkansas state lawmakers tried several times to pass legislation upgrading the state’s anti-cruelty law from a misdemeanor to a felony offense. Armed with studies about the link between cruelty to animals and violence toward people—and recent incidents that had horrified people across the state, such as kittens thrown from a vehicle and the torture and decapitation of dogs—animal advocates hoped that Arkansas would join the growing number of states that provided a strong deterrent to animal abuse. They received no help from the governor, and were unsuccessful every time. Stymied by the legislative process, animal advocates collected signatures to place an anti-cruelty and anti-cockfighting measure on the statewide ballot in 2002, asking the state’s voters to do what lawmakers would not.

All that came from Huckabee during the ballot campaign was a deafening silence. The measure went down in flames, largely because of a scorched earth campaign run by groups such as the Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and Ducks Unlimited—groups with which Huckabee associates himself—falsely claiming that this modest proposal to upgrade the penalties for animal cruelty would have adversely impacted hunting, fishing, farming, and other Arkansas traditions. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a staunchly conservative newspaper, opined again and again in favor of the measure, but it was not enough to counter the misinformation. And Governor Huckabee stood on the sidelines the entire time—a glaring failure of leadership to be sure and perhaps a marker of his own hostile views about animals.

Arkansas is now one of only seven states that consider deliberate, malicious acts of cruelty to animals a misdemeanor offense.  Setting fire to a painting of a dog is a more serious crime in Arkansas than burning the dog himself.  In 43 states—including all the early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—animal cruelty is a felony, because voters and lawmakers have decided that it’s a serious crime that deserves serious consequences.  In fact, 29 of those 43 felony cruelty laws have been passed during the last decade, while Huckabee and Arkansas did nothing.   

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Huckabee’s pandering to the sport hunting lobby. It’s not uncommon for presidential candidates to play up their sportsmen’s bonafides. But for Huckabee, it seems to be a standard talking point. His first television ad in Iowa aired in November and featured action star Chuck Norris, who stated, “Mike Huckabee is a lifelong hunter…”  And during a speech to the NRA in September, Huckabee sounded almost giddy when he talked about shooting a bullet that was guided by angels to pierce an antelope, and he exclaimed, “I’m pretty sure there will be duck hunting in heaven, and I can’t wait.”  The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart had fun with this, and asked, “Governor, are you saying that our heaven is duck hell? Is there any place a duck can go to not get shot?”

A former pastor, Huckabee makes a special appeal to people of faith. At HSLF, we do the same. Some animal protection groups are launching new programs that specifically aim to engage religious people and institutions on the principles of mercy and compassion. Americans of conviction bear a moral responsibility to the vulnerable and the weak.

The hunting lines might be laughable, but there’s nothing funny about an alleged family history of cruelty to animals, or the suggestion that the governor obstructed justice. Huckabee should apologize or explain the specifics regarding the camp cruelty allegations. Call his Iowa campaign office at 515-288-3708 and tell him that animal abuse is a serious crime, not a laughing matter.

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