The U.S. Congress wrapped up its work on the Farm Bill in early 2014, and in the end we saw two very good outcomes in that package: an upgrade to the federal law against animal fighting to make it a crime to attend or bring a child to an animal fight, and a nixing of the King amendment, which posed an enterprise-level threat to animal protection laws. But House Republican leaders denied us opportunities to get a vote on several items that were appropriate fits for the Farm Bill and that had broad, bipartisan support: the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, to strengthen current federal law and combat the cruel practice of soring of Tennessee Walking Horses; the Egg Production Inspection Act Amendments of 2013, to set a minimum standard for space and enrichments for laying hens (to be phased in over time); and the SAFE Act, to stop the slaughter of American horses at home or abroad.
Very significantly, Congress did renew its ban on horse slaughter inspections, so the critical policy of blocking horse slaughter plants from setting up shop on U.S. soil will continue through the current fiscal year. It was a tough fight, and we are grateful to so many lawmakers of both parties for standing tall on this issue. But what was really an abrogation of duty, and a thwarting of the will of both the electorate and that of so many lawmakers of both parties, was inaction on the anti-soring bill. This legislation had 60 Senate cosponsors and 308 in the House – truly, an unprecedented level of support. Republican leaders should have brought it up for debate and a vote. What’s more, Congress’s failure to act on the egg industry reform bill – to ban barren battery cages – is yet another example of the grip that agribusiness interest groups have on Congress. This was a sensible bill supported by the affected agriculture industry, but the pork and cattle industries opposed it because they want no farm animal welfare standards enshrined in the law.
Here’s my rundown of the top areas in which Congress did take steps to help and protect animals in 2014 (the second year of a two-year Congress):
Despite huge levels of bipartisan support for a series of animal protection measures, including horse slaughter and egg industry reform, Congress took action only on a few items, including animal fighting, veterinary assistance to animals in remote areas, and Defense Department work on wildlife trafficking. Some key animal protection reforms were enacted, including:
- Animal Fighting Spectators – Via the Farm Bill, Congress enacted legislation to establish misdemeanor penalties for knowingly attending an organized animal fight and felony penalties for knowingly bringing a minor to such fights.
- Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act – Congress enacted legislation to amend the Controlled Substances Act to allow veterinarians to transport, administer, and dispense controlled substances outside of their registered locations to ensure that they can provide proper care to animal patients in rural or remote areas, including pets in disasters, farm animals, and wildlife.
- Ivory and Wildlife Trafficking – The National Defense Authorization Act, now awaiting the President’s signature into law, contains a Senate provision adding authority for the Department of Defense to partner with civilian law enforcement on joint task forces to combat wildlife trafficking.
Congress fended off several measures that would have been catastrophic for animals:
- King Amendment – The final Farm Bill signed into law in February did not include the dangerous King amendment, which aimed to gut state laws protecting farm animals. Nearly 200 Members of Congress publicly opposed this sweeping attack on states’ rights and the welfare of animals, joined by more than 300 organizations, newspapers, and other officials (see full list).
- Sportsmen’s Act – This package of harmful bills was defeated in the Senate on a procedural vote. The Sportsmen’s Act would have carved out a loophole in the law for wealthy hunters to import sport-hunted trophies of threatened polar bears, opened sensitive federal lands to sport hunting and trapping, and stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to protect wildlife, habitat, and people from lead poisoning through exposure to toxic ammunition (but note that Congress subsequently enacted a bad provision on lead in the omnibus spending bill approved last week).
- Ivory/Wildlife Trafficking – Harmful language that had been part of the House Interior Appropriations bill – to block the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from cracking down on the illicit trade in elephant ivory – was kept out of the final FY15 omnibus spending bill. We hope this will provide some relief for many imperiled species by curbing the illegal trade in wildlife parts that has become a source of cash to finance terrorist networks and transnational organized crime.
- Otters – Language sought by commercial fisheries and the Department of Defense, to provide an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act that would allow them to harm sea otters off the southern California coast, was kept out of the final National Defense Authorization Act.
Some key successes were tucked in the FY15 omnibus spending bill that provides funding for federal departments and is expected to be signed into law this week:
- Horse Slaughter – The omnibus contains a provision to maintain a prohibition on the use of federal funding for inspections at horse slaughter plants, effectively making it illegal to slaughter horses for human consumption in this country. This language was initially recommended by the President in his FY15 budget request and subsequently adopted by the House and Senate appropriations committees earlier this year. Combined with the announcement from the European Union last week that it will ban the import of horsemeat from Mexico, this is a major one-two punch against the North American horse slaughter industry.
- Wildlife Trafficking – The omnibus dedicates $55 million to combat wildlife trafficking, with at least $10 million of that directed to programs to protect rhinos from being poached for their horns, and it prevents the United States from assisting certain countries and military groups if they are found to have participated in wildlife poaching or trafficking. The Senate committee reports accompanying the appropriations bills for the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security also spoke of the seriousness of this problem and directed those agencies to report back on their actions to address it.
- Wild Horses – The omnibus includes language to encourage the Bureau of Land Management to consider new, more humane methods of wild horse population management, including $1 million for a related study, so that the agency can move beyond its current inhumane and costly system of round-ups and long-term penning. It also contains language prohibiting the destruction of healthy wild horses and burros for human consumption.
- Animal Welfare Enforcement – The omnibus sustained funding levels for USDA enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, Horse Protection Act, Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and federal animal fighting law, as well as for programs to address the needs of animals in disasters and to incentivize veterinarians to practice in rural and inner-city areas and to apply for USDA inspection positions.
- Alternatives to Animal Testing – The Committee Report accompanying the House Interior Appropriations bill contained language encouraging continued development of non-animal alternatives for chemical testing.
- Captive Marine Mammals – The omnibus retained a House-approved floor amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill directing USDA to study the effects of captivity on marine mammals and finalize a much-needed upgrade of its Animal Welfare Act regulations for captive orcas and cetaceans that has been languishing for nearly 20 years, so these rules will better address the animals’ physical and behavioral needs.
The biggest setbacks include a provision that seeks to deny the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the content of lead ammunition, language to interfere with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protecting the sage grouse as an endangered species, and provisions to prevent USDA from trying to reform the corrupt beef check-off program that finances agribusiness lobbying against animal welfare improvements or to regulate animal waste as a greenhouse gas. We must redouble our efforts to correct these problems in the new Congress.
Despite the polarized environment, and what many characterized as the least productive Congress of all time, there were some major gains for animals, and a few key setbacks. We are so grateful for the determined and supportive efforts of hundreds of lawmakers – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- who want to see our nation do better on animal protection. We celebrate the victories and are committed to staying active in this arena for the long haul, no matter who is in charge. Most importantly, we ask the American people to help us hold their lawmakers accountable on animal issues so we can achieve greater progress in the future.