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Michael Markarian Headshot

Unfinished Business

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The 111th Congress convened this week, and new members were sworn in on Capitol Hill. It is sure to be a busy year on a wide range of subjects affecting the nation, and animal protection is no exception. Among the very first bills introduced this week were two important measures to protect wildlife -- both of which passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly last year and should be on the fast track to getting over the finish line in the new session.

Chimp The Captive Primate Safety Act, H.R. 80, was introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), seeking to ban the interstate commerce in primates for the exotic pet trade. An estimated 15,000 captive primates are in private hands in the U.S., and are routinely sold as pets over the Internet. They may look cute and cuddly when they are infants, but they become aggressive and difficult to handle when they mature, and average homeowners cannot meet their unique needs for care and enrichment.

Primates bite and scratch and cause serious injury, especially to small children, and can spread dangerous diseases to people. These highly intelligent and social animals often languish in cages, and their teeth are pulled out in an effort to make them less dangerous. Because of these animal welfare concerns as well as the inherent public health and safety risks, a broad coalition of groups such as The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund, American Veterinary Medical Association, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Jane Goodall Institute, and Born Free USA have been working to stop the pet primate trade.

Last year, the Captive Primate Safety Act passed the House Natural Resources Committee thanks to the leadership of Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam). It was brought to the House floor in June where it passed easily, by a vote of 302-96. But a few Republicans like Reps. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) made a fuss about the bill and tried to block it. They used it as a foil for their broader rants on oil drilling and gas prices, which hardly have anything to do with captive primates, and they claimed they objected because the bill would cost money and would interfere with the Congress taking up other priorities.

It was a red herring. First, Congress should be able to handle more than one bill, and acting on a piece of legislation that should require only a few minutes of floor time shouldn't preclude other issues from being heard. And second, the bill doesn't require any new expenditure, and doesn't create any new obligation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to spend anything. It provides an additional tool for law enforcement and will principally be a deterrent to discourage the sale and transport of pet primates across state lines. Wildlife agents don't get line items for enforcement of specific laws, but rather a pot of money to use at their discretion.

The U.S. already bans the interstate trade in lions, tigers, and other big cats as pets, and adding primates to the list of prohibited species doesn't create any new burden. What it does is help the 20 states that ban private ownership of pet primates enforce their own animal welfare and public safety laws, and stem the tide of dangerous primates being sold at auctions and over the Internet. Hardly a month goes by without another attack by a pet primate, and it's time for Congress to put an end to this dangerous monkey business.

Shark Another important bill, the Shark Conservation Act, H.R. 81, was reintroduced this week by Chairwoman Bordallo.  It would protect vulnerable shark species from the cruel and wasteful practice of "finning," in which tens of millions of sharks worldwide have their fins cut off at sea and are then thrown back overboard to die a lingering, painful death. Although shark finning was banned in the U.S. in 2000, Bordallo's bill would close a major loophole that currently permits a vessel to transport fins that were obtained illegally as long as the sharks were not finned aboard that vessel. It also requires that all sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached to their bodies, strengthening enforcement in the oceans. Similar legislation advanced in the Natural Resources Committee and passed the House last July by a voice vote.

These important policy reforms to protect primates and sharks both had broad support in the Congress last year. Lawmakers should move them quickly through both the House and Senate, and make them the first animal protection bills to land on President Obama's desk.