12/04/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Policymakers Hamper Progress for Animals

It is amazing to
me how often the U.S. Congress works not only against common sense, but also
contrary to the national interest. Take two trade-related issues currently
being debated and deliberated upon in that body: importation of sport-hunted
polar bear trophies, and the trade in nine species of large constricting snakes
sold as pets.

Regarding snakes,
last year U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., introduced a good bill, H.R. 511,
seeking to ban trade in Burmese pythons, green anacondas, and seven other
species of constricting snakes that are imported and traded for purchase as
exotic pets. Burmese pythons have colonized Everglades National Park and,
according to peer-reviewed research, wiped out entire classes of small and
medium-sized native mammals in one of America's best known and most important
national parks. The U.S. Geological Survey identified the nine species
covered by the Rooney bill as medium or high risk from an ecological
perspective, to say nothing of the threats to the snakes themselves in the
process of trade, or to humans who foolishly acquire them as pets and fall
victim to their predatory instincts.

Some months ago,
the House Judiciary Committee, with a couple of weakening amendments, rightly
approved H.R. 511. But the reptile lobby--yes, there is such a thing--has been thrashing
its collective tail and saying how benign these snakes are and that cold
weather will prevent the snakes from going much farther than the Everglades (I
guess it's no matter to these supposed snake "lovers" that the snakes will
freeze to death). Somehow the snake lobby, in the form of the U.S. Association
of Reptile Keepers, has hoodwinked a number of Republican House members and
apparently convinced them that this is a matter of "economic freedom." In
short, people make money breeding and selling snakes, and they want to continue
to do so--the consequences be damned. So last Thursday the House Natural
Resources Committee conducted a hearing with Republicans on the panel saying
it's "open season on enterprise, on freedom." One outspoken Congressman, freshman
Rep. Steve Southerland, scored a zero on the Humane Scorecard during his first
term and even voted against legislation to make it a crime to attend or bring a
child to a dogfight or cockfight. He apparently takes such a broad view of
freedom that it's okay to torture animals or to import dangerous invasive
species into the country for use as pets, even if they are creating ecological
havoc, injuring and killing private citizens, and costing the nation millions
of dollars in terms of containment activities.

© istockphoto

Meanwhile, in the
Senate, Democrat leaders are trying their best to pass a grab-bag bill for the
trophy hunting lobby. One provision of the bill, introduced by Sen. John
Tester, D-Mont., would ban the EPA from restricting the use of toxic lead ammunition,
which is known to poison millions of wild animals every year. A second
in the bill would allow the import of 41 polar bear trophies, shot by
American big-game hunters which are currently stuffed and mounted and in cold
storage in Canada. The hunters, who forked over $30,000 or more for a
guided polar bear hunt, don't get to enjoy the heads and hides in their living
rooms--and that makes them mad. The separation anxiety is killing them.

This came to pass
because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list polar bears as a
threatened species, because as it is well known, the species is at extreme risk
due to climate change and, to a lesser extent, trophy hunting and commercial
trade. So, hearing about the imminent federal protections for the bears,
wealthy hunters rushed up to Canada (the only country, among the five range
nations with polar bears, to allow sport hunting of the animals) for a chance
to be among the last people in the world to shoot one of the world's biggest
and most fearsome predators. These hunters didn't get the heads and hides
into the country in time, so they have pleaded with Congress for an import
allowance, even though the species is listed as threatened with extinction.

Can you imagine
what could happen if Congress does this? Every time a hunted species is
proposed for the endangered list we'll have a bums' rush of hunters to the
range country allowing last dibs on endangered animals. For instance, The HSUS
and other animal welfare and conservation groups recently submitted a petition
urging the listing of the African lion as endangered. In response, can we
expect to see a bunch of American hunters booking their flights to Johannesburg
and Windhoek so they can shoot lions there and get the heads and manes in
before the federal government closes off the trade? And if the hunters can't
get this bucket-list item completed in time, can they then plead to their
members of Congress for another trophy import allowance? Let's hope not.

There are a lot
of devoted animal advocates in Congress, and some very good bills moving
forward. But there is also a lot of foolishness, selfishness, and greed in
Congress and the snake and polar bear issues show off these characteristics in
the worst possible ways. A narrow special interest along with pliant and
favor-seeking lawmakers makes for some truly ugly outcomes for animals and our

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