Exotic Pet Rhetoric

I should probably blog more on current animal events of the day but I seem to dwell in a limbic space many hours behind the news cycle and constantly butt up against the law of diminishing relevance.  For example, this whole chimp- mauling thing…  Since we all know the gruesome details, I’ll confine my comments to the recently introduced Captive Primate Safety Act, which just passed the House.  The bill seeks to ban interstate commerce in primates for the exotic pet trade.

The legislation itself is straightforward enough and currently awaits action in the Senate.  Perhaps more noteworthy than the bill’s passage was the rhetoric of those who opposed it.  For example, Rob Bishop of Utah and Paul Broun of Georgia felt that protecting humans from “monkey bites” should be solely the job of the states.  Rep. Bishop perseverated about the Congress having far more important matters to tackle (i.e the stimulus bill, the war(s), etc.).  Apparently included in that crucial national business were two bills Mr. Bishop had sponsored that deal with minor land transfers.  Hat tip to Wayne Pacelle’s blog for that particular skinny.

I confess that Michael Markarian’s comments on the issue also have left me non-plussed.  He seems solely concerned with the (very real and disturbing) human tragedy of the attack and the potential for more such incidents.  He does not mention the exploitation of the animals and the fact that, even when such animals attack, they are simply acting like what they are — wild animals.  It is an ongoing sadness that when wild animals get captured and indentured and then act like what they are, their destruction and denouncement inevitably soon follows.  Perhaps during a lull amidst Rep. Bishop’s pressing national business, someone in Congress could speak about that.


Crime vs. Terrorism: The Case Against AETA

As one commenter recently noted, 4 animal rights activists were recently arrested and charged with suspicion of terrorism for their threats and harassment of University of California researchers (full story here).  I have not seen enough details to take a substantive position on the case but I do have something to say about the the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), the law under which the defendants were charged.  AETA is, in my view, one of the most dangerous laws this nation has ever enacted.  Here’s why:

The following scenario could happen tomorrow: A sixty-eight year old grandmother from Long Island gets tired of reading about the awful conditions in factory farms and determines to see for herself.  She receives permission from Big Food, Inc. to visit a company facility in New Jersey.  Big Food insists, however, that she take no pictures while inside and she agrees.   During the tour, the woman becomes sickened by the conditions under which the animals are housed and surreptitiously snaps a few pictures on her cell phone.  She then circulates the photos to an animal rights group for posting on the group’s website along with a plea that something be done to save the animals.

Did our Long Island grandmother break the law?  Absolutely.  She could be prosecuted for trespass, harassment and other violations, in addition to facing civil liability.  But thanks to AETA, she has become more than a mere lawbreaker.  She is now a terrorist.

AETA became law in November, 2006.  It was enacted ostensibly because industry groups feared violent attacks by animal rights “extremists.”  Yet, AETA’s predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (“AEPA”), already contained harsh penalties for violent acts against animal enterprises.  AETA incorporates those penalties but also goes much further.

Under AETA, non-violent “interference” with an “animal enterprise,” which causes no economic damage and endangers no one, can land a person in prison for a year.  If economic damage results, the penalties increase dramatically.  For example, if our fictional grandmother’s behavior inspired acts of civil disobedience (e.g., forming human chains that prevented trucks from transporting animals in or out of the facility) that caused Big Food to lose money, she could face ten years.  Yet, if her deeds had been directed at a non “animal enterprise,” she would likely incur a fine and/or community service.  At best, this harsh, arbitrary and selective prosecution amounts to bad public policy.  At worst, it violates the Constitution.

To pass constitutional muster, a law cannot be vague or overbroad or impose cruel or unusual punishment.  It must also have a rational basis for existing.  AETA fails in all three categories.

First, it is both vague and overbroad.  As the law is written, virtually anything could be an “animal enterprise” and the supposedly criminal behavior of “interfering with” such enterprises is very poorly defined.  Despite good faith efforts to comply with the law, one could still be violating AETA without knowing or meaning to do so.

Second, AETA imposes disproportionate sentences far in excess of those imposed for similar behavior under other laws.  Indeed, its penalties dwarf those for crimes most of us would consider far more severe.  For example, it is hard to understand why someone protesting slaughterhouse conditions could land in jail for ten years while sex offenders usually do less than five.

Finally, AETA (re)criminalizes conduct that neither causes nor threatens bodily harm, economic damage, or even non-violent physical obstruction, and which is already illegal under existing state and federal law.  Such redundancy lacks any rational basis.  It seems more concerned with stifling dissent than protecting the public from terrorism.

Terrorism usually refers to the intimidation (terrorizing) of a civilian population through mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.  A terrorist is someone who commits such acts.  Classifying standard-issue crimes – including civil disobedience – as terrorism conflates crime (the breach of a legal duty), and terrorism (the use or threat of violence to intimidate or cause panic, especially as a means of affecting political conduct).  All terrorists are criminals but not all criminals are terrorists.  Merging the two erodes normative protections that our founders painstakingly created to safeguard us from tyranny.

Under AETA, well-meaning citizens peacefully trying to bring about social change become the domestic equivalent of enemy combatants.  The danger here is not just that people like our grandmother from Long Island will become stigmatized and get imprisoned for long periods, though that by itself would be problem enough.  It is also that over time, the term terrorism will lose its meaning.

Terrorism should mean something.  We should fear it, do everything we can to suppress it, and punish it when it occurs.  When our government labels something a terrorist threat, the national response should be one of unity and singularity of purpose.

Yet, some activities classified as terrorism under AETA enjoy widespread sympathy and could also be constitutionally protected.  For example, organized protests against puppy mills or the treatment of veal calves could lead to prosecution under the Act.  Calling such protests terrorism has a deeply pernicious effect.  When the nature of the so-called terrorism becomes plain, we could find ourselves empathizing with the perpetrators.  That means we would become – in the eyes of our government – terrorist sympathizers.

So what has AETA wrought?  It has produced a legal regime that stifles free expression and labels dissent a terrorist act.  As a result, it has created a rogue nation of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers and opened a new front of the War on Terror.

We have met the new enemy.  And once again, it is us.


Turkey Plant Workers Indicted for Cruelty

The following press release is posted here:

Indictments Are First Felony Charges for Abuse of Factory-Farmed Birds

For Immediate Release:
February 9, 2009

Dan Paden 757-622-7382

Lewisburg, W.Va. — A Greenbrier County grand jury has issued 19 indictments for cruelty to animals against three former employees of Aviagen Turkeys, Inc. The workers were among those documented abusing and killing turkeys during a PETA undercover investigation conducted last fall at Aviagen’s West Virginia factory farms. Eleven of the indictments are felony charges, the first time in U.S. history–and overdue, according to animal welfare workers–that factory farm employees have faced felony cruelty-to-animals charges for abusing birds. Each felony charge is punishable by one to five years in jail and a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. The eight misdemeanor indictments issued are punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of $300 to $2,000, or both.

The indictments follow an investigation conducted by the West Virginia State Police into acts documented by PETA. The indicted men–Edward Eric Gwinn, Walter Lee “Pee Wee” Hambrick, and Scott Alvin White–were investigated for acts such as stomping on turkeys’ heads, twisting turkeys’ necks in failed attempts to kill them, and repeatedly banging a turkey’s head against metal scaffolding. Gwinn was investigated for his mimicked rape–caught on video–of a turkey hen whom he had pinned against the floor. Additional charges against the men are anticipated to be filed soon in neighboring Monroe County for similar acts committed in that jurisdiction.

PETA recently learned from a whistleblower that Aviagen still has some abusive workers on its payroll. PETA has notified Virginia and federal authorities of suspected drug-related crimes and violations of labor regulations.

“This decisive action by the West Virginia State Police sends a strong message to those who abuse animals,” says PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. “If anyone at home wants to guarantee that they won’t support such cruelty, they should leave turkey off the grocery list and try some vegetarian recipes.”

For more information, please visit PETA.org.

-Suzanne McMillan

Update: WA State lawsuit over factory-farmed animals exempted from anti-cruelty legislation

In reference to my February 13th post regarding the recent filing of a lawsuit challenging WA state’s policies relating to the welfare of factory-farmed animals, the complaint can be found here, along with a press release:


-Suzanne McMillan

Arkansas Makes (Some) Animal Cruelty a Felony

On February 4, Arkansas made animal cruelty a felony offense in some cases (depending on which species was injured/killed, and whether this was a first-time offense). This leaves only four states without any felony animal cruelty provisions: Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and North Dakota. However, all but North Dakota are currently considering introducing felony provisions.

Apparently, the Arkansas statute contains exceptions for standard animal husbandry, among other practices, but I have not been able to locate the Act’s final language. I will post any updates that I come across.

You can read about the new law here, and you can see the wording of Arkansas’s old statute here.

-Suzanne McMillan

WA State animal cruelty statute exemptions

Over 20 states have animal welfare statutes containing express exemptions for standard factory-farming procedures. Many of these exemptions were added in recent years, reflecting a growing trend. This blatant loophole is the source of frustration for those seeking legal protection from physical abuse for farmed animals.

Washington State is one of the states with such exemptions in its anti-animal cruelty statute. Consequently, the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN) has filed a lawsuit against Washington State and King County for violating the constitution with such exemptions. A press release issued here states that “these exemptions are so poorly defined and vague as to invite tremendous acts of animal exploitation to go unpunished. They also invite such a complete delegation of legislative power as to allow the foxes to guard the proverbial henhouse. The exemptions result in unjustifiable and inconsistent protections for animals by permitting some of the most undisputedly heinous and cruel injuries to be inflicted daily on large numbers.”

I have not yet seen a greater elaboration of the legal arguments involved, but stay tuned…

-Suzanne McMillan

The Congressional Canine Awards

From the Truth is Stranger than Fiction Desk: Last night were the Congressional Canine Awards. . .

At the awards ceremony,  House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer eulogized his late dog, Charlotte, declaring: “God invented dogs for us, to give us the kind of uncompromising love that human beings need, and we in turn give them the same kind of love.”  Michael Markarian, President of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, finds this heartwarming and posted the video of Hoyer’s remarks on his blog.

Even while acknowledging Mr. Hoyer’s laudable devotion to Charlotte, I find all of this disturbing.  I can’t decide what bothers me more: that Congressman Hoyer believes dogs were created for human use and benefit or that Michael Markarian finds such sentiments touching.