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Michael Markarian Headshot

We Need Change Animals Can Believe In

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President-elect Barack Obama has eleven weeks between the election and inauguration to pick his Cabinet and key White House personnel. If history is any guide, the first few appointments are likely to be high-profile posts such as Secretary of State and Attorney General, while those that most directly affect animal welfare -- Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior -- won't come until week six or later. 

It's never too soon for animal advocates to start thinking about how these appointments will impact the lives of millions of animals. The next Secretary of the Interior, for example, will oversee the enforcement of wildlife protection laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and will have authority for wildlife management practices on millions of acres of federal lands such as national parks, national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management properties.

Polar_bear The incoming Interior chief is sure to confront major wildlife policy issues such as protecting threatened polar bears and other species from the impacts of global warming, and deploying immunocontraceptive technology to manage wild horses and burros humanely on the range. So far, some of the people whose names have been floated -- like former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles -- have strong records on wildlife protection.

But it's the Agriculture post that perhaps holds the greatest promise for -- and the greatest threat to -- animal welfare. The department has an obvious intersection with the welfare of farm animals, and is responsible for enforcing the nation's laws on humane slaughter, transport, and the disposition of sick and crippled livestock. But its mandate is much broader than that, and this agency also has wide-ranging jurisdiction over the Horse Protection Act, the federal law to combat dogfighting and cockfighting, and the Animal Welfare Act -- the latter alone covers the care and use of animals at thousands of puppy mills, research laboratories, zoos, circuses, and other facilities.

The last few agriculture secretaries have been attentive to some animal protection issues -- by proposing rules on downer livestock and stepping up enforcement efforts to stop animal fighting and the soring of horses -- but they frankly have not made animal welfare a priority. Sadly, some have actually gotten in the way of animal protection efforts -- by trying to end-run the congressional de-funding of USDA inspections at horse slaughter plants, and trying to funnel $3 million in unlawful checkoff funds to the political campaign opposing California's Proposition 2 -- only to be halted both times by court action. Past secretaries came to the jobs with an orientation of being aligned with producers, not consumers, and largely their focus has been for the department to function as an appendage to the agribusiness industry.

It's time for the next Secretary of Agriculture to be an animal advocate. Someone who will heed the call of voters in Florida, Arizona, and California who overwhelmingly sided with more humane treatment of farm animals, and will work with agribusiness groups to improve animal welfare standards. Someone who will extend a merciful death to the nearly ten billion birds not currently afforded protections under the humane slaughter law. Someone who won't try to skirt the federal laws barring horse slaughter or requiring humane transport, and won't attempt to use federal funds to fight animal protection ballot initiatives. Someone who will improve the inspections at slaughter plants, livestock markets, research laboratories, and circuses, and not just consider them business as usual. Someone who will aggressively investigate and build cases against dogfighting and cockfighting rings, will root out cruelty at puppy mills and walking horse shows, and will end the licensing of dealers who profit from selling stolen pets into research.

Some of the people whose names have been floated would be well suited for this task. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, for example, has a solid record on animal protection. As chief executive, he didn't address the most complex issues such as the massive pollution from hog factory farms, but he advocated for bills to toughen the state's penalties for animal fighting, and he stood up to the hunting lobby and vetoed legislation that would have allowed the target shooting of mourning doves for the first time in decades. Another good choice would be John Boyd, Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd is a fourth-generation Virginia poultry farmer who has fought to protect family farms from the industrialization that pushes them out of business, and has spoken out against inhumane practices such as horse slaughter and confinement of laying hens in battery cages.

Downedcow One name on the short list, however, should strike fear in the heart of every animal advocate in the nation: Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas was a leading opponent of animal welfare when he served in Congress. He led the fight against banning the processing of sick and crippled cattle for human consumption -- proclaiming on the House floor that no downer cow would ever enter the American food supply, only to be proven wrong six months later when a downed cow tested positive for mad cow disease. The news became public after beef from this cow was distributed across the country, causing the meat industry to take a major economic hit when more than 40 nations closed their borders to American beef. Animal welfare and food safety were compromised, but the industry also suffered because Stenholm and his short-sighted cronies were penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Stenholm is now a paid lobbyist in Washington, and he's made something of a cottage industry of fighting against animal welfare. His clients have included the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Meat Association, and the National Pork Producers Council. He has even served as the chief lobbyist for the foreign-owned horse slaughter plants. With the Obama administration  promising change, the worst thing it could do would be to tap a paid lobbyist who works for a "who's who" of industries that resist the most modest reforms on animal welfare.

If Obama broadens his gaze beyond the most widely mentioned suspects, he will find additional qualified and compassionate individuals who recognize there is a balancing of interests when it comes to the needs of agriculture, animal welfare, and consumer and environmental protection. We need a bridge builder who can bring animal advocates and agricultural interests to the table to find common ground and take into account humane treatment along with the economic interests of the industry. We need someone who will bring innovation to the sixth-largest federal department and will finally make food safety and animal welfare a priority. For far too long, the agency has given too much weight to the wishes of agribusiness producers, and not enough to the people who purchase and consume the products or the animals used by the industries.

Here's your chance to contact the Obama transition team and urge needed change at the USDA. Ask the President-elect to appoint a Secretary of Agriculture who will truly represent all Americans, including those who care about animal welfare.

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