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C Minus: Subpar Score for Obama Administration on Animal Welfare Issues

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Report Card for 2011

Executive Summary: The Obama administration had B-level scores for the first two years of the term, but earned only a C-minus from The Humane Society of the United States for its performance on animal welfare issues in 2011. The Obama administration had a wide range of opportunities to advance a constructive animal welfare agenda for the nation in 2011, but it was responsible for only a few noteworthy beneficial actions for animals. It stalled, weakened, or exhibited indifference to some overdue reforms, and it even took some highly adverse actions against animal protection.

There were valuable actions to ban the transport of horses on double-decker trucks, to advocate that Congress increase funding for enforcement of animal welfare laws, to crack down on soring abuses of Tennessee Walking horses, and to block the import of sport-hunted polar bear trophies. The administration publicly committed to bringing Internet sellers of puppies under its authority, but there's been no rule proposed yet.

A rule to ban the import of nine species of large constricting snakes for the pet trade has stalled, apparently as a result of pressure from the pet industry. The administration generally had a status quo approach on the management of wild horses and burros, subsidies to factory farms, lethal predator control by Wildlife Services, and the use of chimps in research--although a scientific report released in December on the value of chimps in laboratories has altered the trajectory on that issue for the better. In actions that could only be characterized as hostile, the administration pushed to de-list wolves from the list of federally protected species in the Northern Rockies and the Upper Great Lakes, worked with the slaughterhouse industry to nullify a California downed animal protection law, and tried to allow the killing of sea lions in the Northwest.

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Full Report

With three years completed in his term, President Barack Obama is moving decidedly in the wrong direction on animal welfare issues, earning a grade of "C-minus" for 2011 according to a Report Card produced by The Humane Society of the United States. This performance is a downgrade from last year's "B" and the President's first-year score of "B-minus."

Despite campaign promises that he'd be strong on humane issues, the President has failed to pull together a coherent animal welfare strategy or to deliver any kind of message to our community of 20,000 animal protection organizations and millions of animal-loving Americans throughout the country. His high-level appointees for the agencies that matter most to animal welfare--the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--have made positive moves on a few fronts, but more often they have left important policy matters incomplete or, worse, taken strongly adverse actions.

The president's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 did recommend significant increases in funding for USDA enforcement of key animal welfare laws, which set the stage for congressional approval of those increases in a tough budget year. Yet there were few completed regulatory actions of substance carried out by the administration in 2011, except perhaps for a USDA rule to close a loophole and ban the transport of horses in double-decker trailers on their way to slaughter plants. Even this rule took years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also made a positive preliminary finding on a petition from The HSUS and several other animal welfare and conservation groups to list all chimpanzees, including captive animals, as "endangered," but the agency still must make a final decision on the petition and correct an unprecedented 1989 "split listing" for our closest living relative. That decision will have implications for the use of chimpanzees in the pet trade, in commercials and movies, and in biomedical research.

In contrast, the administration has taken a series of high-profile actions hostile to animal protection, including removing gray wolves from the list of protected species in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes regions; actively joining the meatpacking industry's argument in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a California law banning the mistreatment of downed animals; and authorizing state wildlife officials to kill California sea lions in the Pacific Northwest--a position from which the administration withdrew only in response to litigation filed by The HSUS. The administration is currently considering whether to once again authorize lethal removals of sea lions based on a new application.

In November, President Obama signed an agriculture spending bill that cleared the way for horse slaughter plants to open on U.S. soil; as a U.S. senator, Obama cosponsored legislation to ban horse slaughter, but he's made no definitive pronouncements on the issue as President. Horses are also being harmed by the policies of the Bureau of Land Management, which, while often saying the right things on wild horse and burro management and promising to ramp up the use of an HSUS-developed contraceptive vaccine, nonetheless rounded up more than 10,000 wild horses and burros in 2011. This depleted free-roaming populations and added to swelling populations of captive horses and burros whose care and management consumes nearly three-quarters of the program's entire budget, putting it on a long-term trajectory of financial ruin.

The administration, after receiving more than 32,000 signatures on an HSUS- and ASPCA-backed petition on the White House website, has pledged to take action to bring Internet sellers of puppies under the regulatory authority of the USDA and to provide for inspections of these facilities. This is a long-awaited policy goal, since so many puppy mills are no longer selling to pet stores, but rather are placing dogs for sale on the Internet and escaping any oversight. Yet, three years into the President's term, the agency has not released an actual proposed rule or timetable for action to accomplish this regulatory change. The USDA's Office of Inspector General issued a report in May 2010 that condemned USDA's inspections programs for large-scale dog breeders and recommended that all large-scale commercial dog breeders, including those that sell over the Internet, should fall under USDA's regulatory authority. Animal protection advocates in Congress introduced S. 707 and H.R. 835, the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety (PUPS) Act, to achieve that reform and to provide for exercise requirements for dogs (these bills have nearly 230 cosponsors, with broad support from lawmakers in both parties), but bringing oversight to Internet sellers of puppies is something the agency already has authority to do without needing Congress to explicitly require it.

The humane community was heartened by a proposed rule from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in March 2010 to ban the import and interstate trade of nine species of large constrictor snakes presenting high or medium risk to natural resources. More than 1.1 million of these snakes have been captured in their native habitats in Asia, Africa, and South America and imported into the United States for sale as pets from 1977 to 2007. This trade causes injury or death to numerous snakes during collection or transport. Moreover, snakes have been illegally released in the wild here in the U.S. once their owners realized the animals can grow to 15 or 20 feet in length and weigh 250 pounds. The result is that thousands of Burmese pythons now inhabit Everglades National Park and other natural habitats in south Florida and prey on native species, including endangered species. More than a few kept as pets in private homes have killed children and even adults, one of the latest casualties a 2-year-old child in Florida.

Despite these compelling arguments and bipartisan congressional support for the rule-making, the Office of Management and Budget has stymied final action proposed by the DOI. A year and a half has passed since Salazar announced his proposal. The administration may propose listing just four of the nine species, which would address only 30 percent of the trade and allow the commerce in giant snakes to shift to the species exempted from the trade ban, all of which were determined by a U.S. Geological Survey report to present "high" or "medium risk." This amounts to an unwarranted capitulation to the reptile industry, and specifically to snake dealers who recklessly peddle these animals at flea markets and over the Internet and have caused the very problem that has cost the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars to address.

Summary Graphic of 2011 Report Card

Here's a more detailed look at the administration's record in some key areas of concern:

U.S. Department of Agriculture: Farm Animals, Wildlife, and Horses

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been entirely silent on the July 2011 accord reached by The HSUS and the United Egg Producers (UEP) to jointly seek federal legislation to phase out barren battery cages, to prohibit other inhumane practices at egg farms, and to set up a national egg labeling program to give consumers more information about housing practices. Egg producers throughout the nation support the legislation and view it as essential to their future survival, while a broad coalition of animal protection organizations considers it one of the biggest farm animal welfare advances ever achieved. Congressional lawmakers from both parties plan to introduce legislation consistent with the terms of the HSUS-UEP agreement this month. This is a perfect opportunity for the Obama administration to embrace a consensus-driven, solutions-oriented approach.

If the administration has been slow to embrace industry-backed farm animal welfare proposals that we consider constructive, it has been quick to endorse industry's various efforts to undermine advances in reforming the sector. In a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, National Meat Association v. Harris, the federal government sided with the slaughter industry in its attempt to overturn a California state law to stop the mishandling of downer animals. The pork industry has for years claimed that downer pigs are simply "fatigued," and that they will recover and stand on their own if given enough time. The reality is pigs go down because they live in terrible conditions on factory farms, they are weakened because of fast rates of growth and drugs to spur that growth, and they suffer in long-distance transport. The industry's rationalization for continued mistreatment of downer animals is similar to what we heard from the cattle industry for years, as it blocked action to ban downer cows in the food supply until a series of crises made continued inaction untenable.

The administration's decision to align with the meatpacking industry to overturn a state law, passed after an HSUS investigation at the Hallmark-Westland slaughter plant that resulted in the largest meat recall in American history, is surely one of the most hostile and sweeping actions taken against animal welfare in 2011. Ironically, the same Department of Justice has been pursuing a False Claims Act legal action with HSUS against the owners of the plant at the very same time it was working, in concert with the National Meat Association, to undermine the California law.

In the meantime, the USDA continues to dole out tens of millions of federal dollars to buy up surplus pork as a direct subsidy to the industry, even though producers have been experiencing record profits. The HSUS has encouraged USDA to tie any buy-ups to a commitment from the industry to an industry-wide phase out of gestation crates and the routine dosing of pigs with antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons, but that request has been met with silence.

In another case of a pledge without any subsequent action, USDA announced its intention to approve a new rule to protect downed calves, after a separate HSUS investigation of a slaughter plant in Vermont--more than two years ago--documented fully conscious calves being severely abused and even skinned alive. But no final rule has yet been issued.

Unfortunately, USDA has also continued the use of lethal predator control methods by Wildlife Services, an agency program that kills wildlife as a subsidy for private ranchers and other special interests, and has failed to shift the focus of its resources to nonlethal alternatives that can be more effective. The HSUS requested that Wildlife Services eliminate the use of two highly toxic and indiscriminate poisons, Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide, which kill hundreds of non-target wild and domestic animals every year, including family pets. These poisons are used to kill more than 13,000 animals a year, yet only 0.3 percent of the animals killed by Wildlife Services are killed by these toxicants, indicating how these poisons are of limited value to Wildlife Services' program. It's business as usual for Wildlife Services, as the agency has refused to stop using these dangerous and inhumane poisons.

On the positive side, USDA has stepped up enforcement of the Horse Protection Act that bans the practice of "soring" of Tennessee Walking Horses, hiring 15 new inspectors to address the criminal use of caustic chemicals and other substances to harm horses' hooves and make it painful for the horses to step down in order to cause an artificially high-stepping gait in show competitions. The Department of Justice brought charges against three individuals for illegal soring, in one of the first serious enforcement actions we've seen against this industry's scofflaws in years.

Significantly, too, the administration did request increased funding for enforcement of federal humane laws as part of the President's Budget for Fiscal Year 2012, and with 159 members of the House and Senate lining up in support, record funding for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act was secured.

U.S. Department of the Interior: Wolves, Chimps, Wild Horses, and More

The DOI's delisting of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes, thereby paving the way for large-scale killing of wolves in six states, has been its highest-profile and most negative wildlife action for the year. This action by the administration opens the door for sport hunting and trapping seasons on wolves in these states, many of which have extremely hostile wolf management plans that call for dramatic reduction in numbers of wolves--undoing the very recovery that occurred under federal protection.

The agency has, however, made a positive preliminary finding to list all chimpanzees, including captive chimps in the U.S., as endangered, which could have an impact on the use of chimps in invasive research, in entertainment, and as exotic pets. It has also announced a work plan to address the backlog of Endangered Species Act listing determinations for 251 species over the next six years. Finally, it has fought efforts by the trophy hunting lobby to import sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada, consistent with the Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of polar bears as a threatened species.

The HSUS has been in close communications with DOI's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) about the wild horse and burro program, and in February Congress called attention to the program's serious flaws during a floor debate on the FY 2011 budget. BLM has made a number of reforms in the program and has pledged to reduce annual round-ups to no more than 7,600 and to increase the annual number of contracepted horses to 2,000 during the next two years, which would at least be a start in the right direction.

Unfortunately, while the agency often says the right things about reforming its woefully inadequate wild horse management program, so far, it has failed to translate those words into action in the field. Sadly, FY 2011 was no exception as BLM removed more than 10,000 wild horses and burros from their homes. We hope next year that the agency will live up to its promises and finally put this broken program on a humane, effective, and sustainable track.

DOI has also failed the bison in Yellowstone National Park by relinquishing responsibility to the states when bison leave the park simply to find sufficient food sources in the winter. The agency has not seriously addressed habitat, population control, and ecosystem management options to ensure the survival of this culturally and historically significant animal species.

U.S Department of Commerce: Whales and Other Marine Animals

The U.S. Department of Commerce has initiated a few actions to benefit animals. For example, the agency announced the Pelly Certification (trade sanctions) against Iceland for commercial whaling in defiance of the International Whaling Commission's ban, and it is helping Hawaiian false killer whales by issuing proposed rules to modify commercial fishing gear and impose fishery closures in substantial areas around Hawaii in order to reduce hooking-related deaths of this species.

But the majority of the agency's decisions were harmful, especially to marine animals. The agency denied two petitions by The HSUS to protect the dwindling populations of porbeagle sharks (both of which HSUS has had to challenge in court), authorized states in the Pacific Northwest to kill up to 85 sea lions per year at Bonneville Dam for eating salmon in the Columbia River (though sea lions account for only a tiny fraction of salmon killed), and failed to issue regulations for the number of smooth dogfish sharks that can be caught (this is a growing fishery in the Atlantic, and regulations are needed to mitigate the harmful impact of their exemption by Congress from the fins-attached policy mandated in the 2010 Shark Conservation Act).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Antibiotics in Livestock Feed and Animals in Laboratories

In reviewing the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) 2011 actions, we were not pleased when the agency rejected a petition to ban non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock feed--a common industry practice to compensate for overcrowded, unsanitary, and highly stressful conditions on factory farms. Also, at the end of the year, the agency withdrew its longstanding proposals to remove approvals for two classes of antibiotics, penicillins and tetracyclines, for use in livestock feed. These actions are incredibly frustrating because it is estimated that 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to livestock, primarily in order to promote growth, maintain forced production yields, and suppress the spread of disease that accompanies the extreme concentration of animals in factory farms.

Early in 2012, however, the agency made a positive step toward limiting the overuse of antibiotics by prohibiting some uses of cephalosporin antibiotics in food producing animals. We applaud the agency for this action and encourage FDA to take further urgently needed steps to address the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

In June 2010, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced plans to transfer 186 chimpanzees from a holding facility in New Mexico to a research facility in Texas, where they would be used for invasive research. The HSUS and Animal Protection of New Mexico raised a hue and cry, as did other groups, and the transfer was stopped. In response to a congressional inquiry, the NIH then asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to examine the question of whether chimpanzees are necessary for research. An IOM panel issued its report on Dec. 15, concluding that chimpanzees are largely unnecessary for research. In a positive move, NIH immediately agreed to halt funding of new chimpanzee studies and will not issue any new awards for research involving chimps until a process is in place to implement the IOM recommendations. Meanwhile, The HSUS is supporting legislation in Congress to phase out the use of these animals in invasive experiments and retire them to sanctuary, which would not only be much more humane but would save taxpayers $30 million annually.

For its part, FDA clarified that there is a policy within the agency not to request data from chimpanzee studies.

In addition, FDA approved a new procedure that avoids using animals for testing batches of Botox. We expect this action to reduce the use of animals in these tests by 95 percent for the popular anti-wrinkle treatment.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Factory Farm Pollution and Animal Testing Alternatives

There are some high and low points with EPA's record on animal protection in 2011. In respect to water pollution, the agency made a positive step by re-establishing concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), agricultural operations where large numbers of animals are intensively confined and fed for industrial production, as a national enforcement priority. This is important to protect human and ecosystem health by preventing animal waste from contaminating surface and ground waters, including harming wildlife, fish, and other aquatic species.

The agency has not, however, responded to a legal petition submitted by The HSUS and a coalition of environmental and public health organizations submitted in 2009 requesting the agency to list CAFOs as sources of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. The agency has also failed to respond to a petition submitted by The HSUS along with the Environmental Integrity Project and a coalition of environmental and public health organizations to list ammonia, a hazardous air pollutant often emitted from CAFOs, as a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

EPA also chose not to respond to a 2010 court-ordered remand of a 2008 exemption issued by the agency to CAFOs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act. In 2012, the agency should withdraw the 2008 rule and re-empower U.S. citizens to know what hazardous chemicals are entering their environment and their communities.

Next, EPA's efforts to minimize duplicative animal testing in the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program were minimal and will only modestly impact the number of animals used. However, the agency has been working with the NIH on developing a series of rapid, inexpensive non-animal tests for chemical activity, some of which test for endocrine-related activities. In December, EPA released its plan for incorporating these tests into the screening program. Initially, the non-animal tests will be used to prioritize chemicals for further testing and the impact on animal use will be modest--for those chemicals that are of lowest priority, animals may not be tested upon. However, EPA's eventual plan is to transition to a completely non-animal battery within five years, which would have a substantial impact on the number of animals used in the screening program.

Take Action Today

We are hopeful that the Obama administration will improve upon its record and address many important animal welfare policies in 2012. In fact, some are already in progress, such as the announcement that USDA will work to propose a rule to regulate large-scale commercial dog breeders that sell puppies over the Internet. Please take action today to urge the White House to make good on its promises and to establish a stronger record on animal welfare.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.

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