The Obama Administration’s First Term – Animal Protection Record

By on January 17, 2013 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

With President Obama’s inauguration and second term around the corner, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look back at his animal protection record over the last four years. How well has this administration responded to animal protection concerns?

Viewed with a wide lens, and examining the big subjects within the jurisdiction of multiple agencies (e.g., the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior), the administration has performed in a mediocre way – not failing, but far from stellar. There have been some positive steps, but also some harmful actions. The biggest problem has been the administration’s inordinate delays and inattention to these issues. In fact, I don’t believe the president has said one word about animal protection, except for his early announcement about a federal rule prohibiting most downer cattle in the food supply. Animal protection has been off his radar screen. It’s safe to say that there’s been no vision staked out by the president on these issues, and a very limited vision from his cabinet secretaries whose daily work puts them in closer touch with these questions.

2009-2013 Animal Protection Record: B minus


*Overall grade reflects weighted ratings.

Animal protection issues are spread across a number of departments, but some agencies have accomplished more than others. Here is a brief breakdown of the key agencies with jurisdiction over animal issues and their accomplishments over the past four years.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The USDA has oversight of a large number of animal protection issues, but the agency only completed five rulemakings to help animals in the past four years. During the president’s first 50 days in office, he announced that the administration would finalize a pending USDA rule to close a loophole allowing slaughter of adult downed cows. The rule was finalized about a month later.

Horse transport to slaughter

Kathy Milani/The HSUS

The next set of final rules to benefit animals would not appear until 2011, and then again in 2012. USDA issued two final rules to benefit horses by: (1) closing a loophole on the ban of the use of double decker trailers for transporting horses to slaughter; and (2) requiring Horse Industry Organizations to impose uniform mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act. At the end of 2012, the agency finalized a long awaited rule to keep track of traveling exhibitors by requiring them to submit itineraries for all trips, and issued a final rule to require disaster preparation for research facilities, dealers, and exhibitors regulated under the Animal Welfare Act.

The agency also made reforms to humane slaughter oversight. This included the establishment of an Ombudsman in the Office of Food Safety to focus on humane handling issues and provide agency employees with an avenue to raise concerns. The agency addressed enforcement of humane slaughter by issuing training modules for inspectors, guidelines for video surveillance in slaughterhouses, and new procedures to ensure uniform enforcement for immediate humane euthanasia of all downed adult cattle.

Unfortunately, administrative delay has kept the USDA from completing three top priority rulemakings: (1) responding to a petition that The HSUS submitted in 2009 to require that downer calves be humanely euthanized just as USDA requires for adult downer cows; (2) finalizing a rule to prohibit the importation of sick young puppies from foreign puppy mills; and (3) finalizing a rule to crack down on puppy mills that sell large numbers of dogs to consumers over the Internet without any federal oversight.

In addition to the frustration created by its administrative delay, the USDA has failed to take any actions to address programs that provide taxpayer giveaways that directly harm animals without requiring any animal welfare changes. For example, the USDA continues to sanction the use of lethal methods by Wildlife Services, an agency program that kills predators and other wildlife as a subsidy for private ranchers and other special interests, and has failed to shift the focus of its resources to nonlethal alternatives. The agency has also continued to give millions of dollars to the pork industry without mandating any animal welfare reforms. The pork industry can continue immobilizing animals in small crates, polluting waterways, and dosing animals with antibiotics, threatening the public health of our nation, with no accountability.

Although we hoped the administration would have completed more rulemakings to help animals during its first term and made changes to programs that have long been a concern to animal welfare advocates, the USDA made positive steps in enforcement to ensure that important animal welfare laws were being upheld. This includes cracking down on puppy mills and roadside zoos by increasing enforcement under the AWA and imposing higher fines. The agency also increased Horse Protection Act enforcement and worked with U.S. Attorneys to seek criminal prosecutions.

There are still areas, however, where the agency could improve animal welfare enforcement. For example, although the Office of Inspector General audited the horse transport program in 2010 and recommended numerous changes, including prohibiting transport of horses to slaughter by individuals with outstanding fines, the agency has failed to take significant steps to ensure that only individuals with no outstanding fines can transport horses to slaughter. As a result of this enforcement failure, transporters have no incentive to transport horses humanely which has severe consequences for horses going to slaughter facilities.

Finally, we were glad to see that the administration made increased transparency a priority. Some of the actions the USDA took include posting AWA, HPA, and Humane Methods of Slaughter Act enforcement actions online along with posting on the Internet inspection reports for animal dealers, exhibitors and research facilities regulated under the AWA.

U.S. Department of the Interior

The DOI has jurisdiction over a large number of wildlife issues and The HSUS has made a number of requests to the administration for important regulatory changes. Over the course of the past four years, the DOI has responded to a number of The HSUS’ requests by taking some necessary steps to protect endangered and threatened species.

Two polar bears on snow

One of DOI’s first actions under this administration, done in conjunction with the Department of Commerce, was to revoke President Bush’s eleventh hour rule undermining Endangered Species Act protections by eliminating the important consultation requirement. By revoking this rule, federal agencies must again consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service before taking any action that may affect threatened or endangered species.

Next, the agency took several important actions to protect specific species during President Obama’s first term. For example the DOI acted to protect dwindling polar bear populations by submitting proposals (in 2009 and 2012) to move the species to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which would halt trade in polar bear skins. In 2010, the agency designated more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat for this threatened species under the ESA and upheld a ban on polar bear trophy imports.

The agency issued a final rule to protect manatees, including the establishment of a manatee refuge in Kings Bay, Florida. Although the agency has not yet finalized increased protections for chimpanzees and lions, the agency found that The HSUS’ requests to list all chimpanzees (currently only chimpanzees in the wild are designated as endangered) and African lions as endangered under the ESA may be warranted. The agency is currently conducting a formal review of the status of these animals.

Another very important action the agency took was to issue a final rule listing four large constrictor snake species as “injurious” under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the importation and interstate transport of these dangerous snakes as pets. Large constrictor snakes can suffer in the pet trade, can pose a danger to the public, and can become an invasive species when unwanted pets are released outdoors. However, the agency unfortunately did not list the other five species of large constrictor snakes, including reticulated pythons and boa constrictors, which together have killed more U.S. citizens than any other constrictor snakes, and were respectively identified as medium and high risk invasive species by the U.S. Geological Survey. We hope the USFWS will consider listing the other five species of snakes in the near future.

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that the DOI has only acted to protect animals during President Obama’s first term. In fact, in some areas, the DOI has taken harmful actions, or failed to protect iconic species. For instance, the agency supported a budget rider that congress attached to an Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations bill, directing the USFWS to delist the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment of gray wolves (in Idaho, Mont., Utah, Wash., Ore.). The DOI also delisted the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment of gray wolves (in Minn., Wis. and Mich.), and the Wyoming population of wolves. All of these actions are a disservice to the iconic species which can now be hunted and trapped under hostile state management plans. The department also failed to improve its wild horse program by failing to increase the number of mares treated with immunocontraceptive fertility control and by removing far more horses from the range than the agency is able to adopt out.

Further, the agency sought to decrease protections for African elephants and bobcats under the CITES. Fortunately, neither proposal succeeded.

As for enforcement, the USFWS deserves accolades for working hard to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade, and took several high-profile actions to bust wildlife smugglers. The agency also made strides in increasing transparency under the ESA permitting program.

U.S. Department of Commerce

The DOC has not been very active in working to protect marine mammals despite its responsibilities under the law. However, the agency has taken a few significant actions to protect marine mammals. For example, in 2010, the DOC protected the commercial whaling moratorium at the International Commission meeting. The DOC also listed the Insular stock of false killer whales in Hawaii as endangered under the ESA and mandated restrictions on commercial fisheries that have annually entangled and killed members of this small population. The agency also issued an important rule to force groundfish fishing fleets farther away from Western sea lion rookeries in Alaska to prevent the fisheries from generating excessive competition for the fish that are key prey for the sea lions. The agency also proposed a rule which would promote the conservation and sustainable management of sharks, a much needed action to protect dwindling shark species worldwide.

In some areas, however, the DOC has failed to sufficiently protect marine mammals and shark species. For instance, the DOC has agreed to allow the killing of up to 92 California sea lions each year for eating salmon near the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Sea lions are estimated to consume less than four percent of ESA-listed salmon and in each of the past two years have eaten only around 1 percent of the spring salmon at the dam (other factors, such as overfishing and habitat destruction, are responsible for much greater shares of salmon loss). Also, due to industry pressure, the agency failed to follow through with a gillnet fishery closure that had been mandated due to the fishery’s failure to comply with mandatory risk reduction measures meant to reduce drowning deaths of harbor porpoises. The closure would have likely saved hundreds of harbor porpoises. In another negative move, the agency failed to protect the porbeagle shark by denying petitions to list the species under the ESA and the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The agency also failed to protect North Atlantic right whales by issuing biological opinions allowing three North American fisheries to continue to operate in a manner resulting in deaths and serious injuries to this critically endangered species. Finally, the agency took a move which could negatively affect many marine mammal species by authorizing the construction of an undersea naval warfare training range off the coast of Florida. This range would use sonar testing and other training activities known to cause harm to marine mammals.

On another unfortunate note, the agency has delayed the issuance of two top priority rulemakings that would help protect North Atlantic right whales: (1) issuing a necessary rule restricting the speed of large vessels in specific areas along the east coast where this critically endangered species is found in the largest numbers during certain times of year, and (2) issuing a rule to expand critical habitat for the whale, which the agency committed to publish in the latter part of 2011 but has not yet released.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

One of the agencies to make significant changes for animals during the president’s first term was HHS, ushering in very positive and encouraging actions. In 2012, the National Institutes of Health announced it had ended its contract with the New Iberia Research Center and that all 110 government-owned chimpanzees were now “permanently ineligible” for future research. The HSUS supported the termination of the contract and collaborated with NIH, Chimp Haven, and other groups, to develop a plan to move all the chimpanzees to sanctuary at Chimp Haven, located in Louisiana. This announcement came after a 2011 Institute of Medicine report, stating that the current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary, with very few exceptions. The NIH put together a working group on the use of chimpanzees in NIH-supported research to provide suggestions on how to implement IOM’s findings, and this report is expected to be released next week.

Kitty the chimpanzee 

The Department of Health and Human Services also made other strides with animals used in invasive research by: (1) phasing out the use of dogs and cats obtained from Class B random source dealers (including pets acquired through theft and fraud); (2) implementing new procedures that avoid using animals in testing Botox; and (3) announcing a $70 million commitment to collaborate with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a chip to screen for safe and effective drugs far more swiftly and efficiently than current methods that rely on the use of animals.

One area on which the Agency needs to improve is curbing the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. In 2012, the FDA issued final guidance with the intent to inform the public of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current thinking on the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals. The guidance included evidence establishing that the administration of antibiotics to food-producing animals poses a hazard to human and animal health. In response to this, however, the FDA issued guidelines that only establish a voluntary program with a long phase-in period, which continues to put the public at risk if some operators do not comply with the voluntary restrictions.  These guidelines also do not satisfactorily address the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture for “disease prevention” (when they are fed to animals to keep them in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions where they will predictably get sick).

There are a number of other federal agencies with responsibilities that impact animal welfare, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission. The EPA approved the first fertility control vaccine for wild horses, which we applaud. Expanding the use of this proven contraceptive should lead to a significant reduction in wild horse round-ups. The agency also removed the “restricted use” classification for a contraceptive for pigeons. This new classification will make this product more readily available for communities to control pigeon populations humanely and effectively. As for animal alternatives, the EPA’s collaboration with The L’Oreal Group to create alternatives to animal-based toxicity tests that test substances used in cosmetics should be applauded.

Finally, the FTC issued a proposed regulation in 2012 that fails to correct an inaccurate and misleading use of the industry trade name “Asiatic raccoon” on fur labels to describe the raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). The HSUS opposes this action because it does not give consumers an accurate description of the product they are buying, especially when fur from these animals is among the most highly mislabeled fur available in the market today. The FTC did begin enforcement of the Truth in Fur Labeling Act, which requires the labeling of all animal fur trim regardless of dollar value, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection took action to investigate and shut down a New York business selling domestic dog fur.

President Obama’s Second Term – More Action Needed to Protect Animals

There are numerous actions that the administration did not complete, and one of the significant problems with the first term was ongoing regulatory delay. We encourage the administration to begin its second term by addressing the following regulatory issues in the next 100 days:

  1. Finalize the puppy mill retail rule and puppy mill import rules
  2. Issue a rule to close the loophole on downer veal calves
  3. List all chimpanzees as an endangered species and phase out invasive experiments on chimpanzees
  4. List the African lion as an endangered species
  5. Issue a rule listing the remaining five large constrictor snakes as an injurious species prohibiting the importation and interstate transport of these snakes as pets
  6. Increase fertility control and decrease round-ups for wild horses
  7. Grant petition to declare horsemeat as condemned and unqualified for human consumption and implement the Office of Inspector General’s recommendations for strengthening horse slaughter transport, including refusing to provide shipping documents to individuals who violate humane handling regulations and who have outstanding fines
  8. Phase out the use of predator poisons Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide and audit Wildlife Services, especially its lethal predator control program
  9. Issue two important rules to protect North Atlantic right whales: (1) a rule to restrict the speed of large vessels in areas where this species is found, and (2) a rule to expand critical habitat for this species
  10. Require animal welfare reforms before granting pork subsidies
Animal Research and Testing, Companion Animals, Farm Animals, Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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