Editorial: When Noah has to sail or sink
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2000:
Superior Court Judge Floyd V. Baxter on September 21 appointed American
Humane Association western regional office director Gini Barrett special master to supervise
the ongoing strained relationship between Wildlife Waystation, one of the biggest, oldest,
and best-respected sanctuaries for captive wild animals in the U.S., and a cluster of hostile
regulatory agencies––particularly the California Department of Fish and Game.
A special master is a person of expertise designated by a court to insure that an institution
meets conditions of law. A special master may be likened to a parole officer, a social
worker, or in this case an ombudsman, whose most important job may be finding her way
around deep mutual mistrust and failures of communication.
According to the regulators, especially the California DFG, Wildlife Waystation is
a perennial scofflaw. But Waystation defenders, including the founders and directors of many
of the other best-known and best regarded sanctuaries of similar kind, praise Waystation
founder Martine Colette for daring to innovate on behalf of the many special-needs animals in
her care, for standing up against senseless and capricious applications of rules written to govern
very different kinds of institutions, and for withstanding a DFG publicity offensive that
included an April 7 raid by personnel wearing quasi-space suits from fear that purportedly
HIV-infected chimpanzees might fling feces.
Feces flew––but none of the 50 Waystation chimps are HIV-positive.
Rationalizing the raid to media, the DFG released a denunciatory report on the
Waystation by consultant Diane Grenados, consisting largely of leading questions which she
had not voiced to Waystation staff, for which reason she did not receive the usually simple
answers. Grenados’ chief qualification to write the report seemed to be that she formerly managed
a “pet lending library” for the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, in Walnut Creek, California.
As the case evolved, the central issues shifted from allegations about animal care to
runoff water quality and the condition of employee housing. Both matters are almost entirely
outside DFG jurisdiction, but the DFG kept the Waystation totally closed for 110 days, and at
this writing continues to allow it to take in only furbearing mammals and nongame birds.
Said Colette of the appointment of special master Barrett, “I’m thrilled to death,
because this lady is qualified.”
Barrett, who supervises animal use in the screen industry for AHA, was in fact at
the head of Colette’s short list of choices as special master, as ANIMAL PEOPLE reported
in September 2000. Barrett, as a former longtime member of the Los Angeles Board of
Animal Regulation, knows the regulatory bureaucracy inside and out. Barrett also knows and
understands the work of the Waystation, the last refuge for more than 1,200 animals.
Contrary to common belief, most Waystation animals are not former stars of entertainment.
Like the majority of animals at hundreds of other sanctuaries, most arrived through
actions of law enforcement. Many were actually delivered by the California DFG. Most were
at one time inappropriately kept as pets.
Some were snatched as infants from nests and dens, often at cost of the lives of their
frantic parents. Some were seized by U.S. Customs and Immigration, or by the USDA, after
ruthless entrepreneurs tried to bootleg them into the U.S. in violation of the Endangered
Species Act and Wild Caught Bird Protection Act. Others were nabbed in Lacey Act cases,
involving illegal interstate commerce, or through enforcement of the Animal Welfare
Act––sometimes against dealers, but more often against unaccredited roadside zoos, which
all too often inherit exotic pets when the petkeepers can no longer cope with the cost and difficulty
of keeping them.
Though the roadside zoos charge admission and sell souvenirs, they too typically
struggle to feed their animals and staff. Exceptions are mostly those that breed and sell animals,
as “exotic pets” or “alternative livestock,” frequently as part of speculation pyramids,
or to supply canned hunts, which also dispose of castoff exotic pets.
The greatest numbers of sanctuary animals come either from animal control agencies
or private citizens who acquired exotic pets or “alternative livestock,” ran into trouble with
neighbors, and were warned by animal control agencies that keeping the exotic cat, primate,
or whatever in their yard was prohibited by ordinance. Some manage to sell their problematic
animals, or give them away. The rest––and most confiscating animal control agencies––burn
up the telephone lines and the Internet trying to find sanctuary placement.
The best sanctuaries provide quality care-for-life to animals who mostly should
never have been bred. Inevitably, they also quite unintentionally allow exotic petkeepers to
dispose of animals with relatively little sense of guilt or continuing obligation. In addition,
sanctuaries enable law enforcement to protect the public from potentially dangerous species
without killing those whose popularity and scarcity in the wild might raise an outcry.
Ironically, some of the species in question, such as tigers and African lions, have
become markedly more abundant in captivity than in the wild, and now are so many generations
removed from the wild that successful reintroduction to wild habitat would be problematic
even if suitable habitat existed and global conservation treaties allowed the effort.
No matter: people still breed tigers, lions, et al in the misguided belief, promoted
by dealers, that they are preserving endangered species. Law enforcement has filled many
sanctuaries with the offspring, yet paradoxically has done little or nothing to suppress the
breeding which is the foundation of the exotic wildlife and “alternative livestock” industries.
Some observers now estimate the total value of the exotic wildlife and “alternative
livestock” traffic at $6 billion per year: three times larger than the U.S. retail fur industry ever
was. Whatever the size of it, the exotic animal trade is––like the gun and tobacco industries
––both constitutionally protected and politically very well-connected. There is no Second
Amendment guaranteeing Americans the right to maintain bears, army ants, or whatever, but
the Ninth Amendment “commerce clause” suffices to keep Congressional attempts to deter
exotic animal breeding, such as the so-called Shambala Act advanced by sanctuarian and
actress Tippi Hedren, permanently dormant in committee.
Overriding the “commerce clause” to ban a legal and traditional trade by constitutional
amendment has only been done once, by the Volstead Act of 1919, which for 12 years
barred the traffic in alcohol for human consumption, and is remembered as probably the worst
regulatory failure in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, some of the same people who defend guns and tobacco defend the exotic
animal trade too, including Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush, who as
governor of Texas was the Safari Club International’s “Governor of the Year” in 1999 for his
successful obstruction of state bills to restrict exotic animal breeding and canned hunts.
Having pushed the Shambala Act for more than a year without getting much from it
but an initial burst of publicity, the American Sanctuary Association on August 29 appealed
directly to Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman for a combination of regulatory and material
help to enable sanctuarians to cope with the ever-increasing demand for their services.
“I am pleased that the USDA has seen fit to step up its prosecution of offenders,”
began ASA president Carol Azvestas, “but I am also extremely alarmed at the number of animals
who are displaced by these prosecutions. The USDA prosecutes offenders,” Azvestas
charged, “without applying any control as to the future of the animals concerned, other than a
time period given to the offender in which to rehome them. Often, these animals are recycled
back into the breeding and exotic pet industry, thus potentially creating additional problems.
“If the USDA is issuing permits to persons who desire to breed, sell, or exhibit
[exotic] animals for profit,” Azvestas said, “and then prosecutes offenders in this area, then
surely it would make sense that the USDA should be responsible for the final disposition of the
animals in question. At this time the USDA does not seem to care about the fate of these animals,
and it is evident that the USDA is taking advantage of the kindness of nonprofit sanctuaries,
such as ours. The humane alternatives are limited: sanctuary or euthanasia.”
Azvestas might have added from experience that no good deed goes unpunished. As
founder of the Wild Animal Orphanage sanctuary near San Antonio, Texas, Azvestas was
herself penalized by the USDA for a botched 1997 attempt to rescue three big cats from a
defunct roadside zoo. Two died in transport from alleged oversedation––but overdosing the
animals intentionally, to kill them, would have been okay.
Sanctuaries pay the price for all
Azvestas asked the USDA to refrain from “licensing people [to possess exotic
species] who are in no position to comply with the legal requirements for the care of however
many animals they are handling”; to double all permit fees and use the revenue plus fines for
permit violations to create a fund to underwrite the appropriate relocation of confiscated animals;
and to oversee and follow up on all relocations accomplished due to regulatory action.
“The continual stream of unwanted and neglected animals and the financial burden
created by the USDA should not fall on the heads of sanctuaries and other related nonprofit
agencies,” Azvestas concluded.
Glickman could pursue the requested regulatory amendments and any necessary
enabling legislation not only as Agriculture Secretary but also in his capacity as one of the
three members of the cabinet-level Invasive Species Council, which President Bill Clinton
created in February 1999 expressly to deal with problematic exotic animals and plants.
Azvestas appended to her letter to Glickman a list of more than 100 large carnivores
who arrived at ASA member sanctuaries within the past two years as result of USDA actions,
whose care will cumulatively cost upward of $500,000 per year––and those animals are only a
few of the ever-expanding menagerie entering sanctuary care.
Altogether, there may be several dozen federal, state, and local law enforcement
agencies seeking sanctuary space for exotic species for every quality care facility. For each
law enforcement agency, there may be dozens of individual owners who must give up exotic
animals, or choose to do so––sometimes by the hundred.
For that reason, as PIGS: A Sanctuary cofounder Dale Riffle told would-be sanctuarians
at the recent No-Kill Conference in Tucson, PIGS and most other well-reputed sanctuaries
long ago began actively attempting to dissuade exotic pet acquistion.
Summarized Riffle, “Acquisition leads to fads, fads lead to breeding, breeding
leads to thoughtless acquisition and eventual abandonment. We cannot build sanctuaries fast
enough to keep up with the surplus, even of potbellied pigs, and what we are dealing with is
equally true of reptiles, wolf hybrids, exotic cats, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, flying squirrels,
and whatever else is the exotic pet fad of the month.”
The sanctuary community has expanded exponentially over the past decade, and
continues to grow. Hundreds of concerned individuals are now dedicating their lives, like
members of a new religious order, to the often semi-monastic demands of caring for species
who typically must be kept well away from most people. Thousands of sympathetic donors
fund such efforts. But finding suitable space for sanctuaries is becoming ever harder, and
countless other causes compete for altruistic support.
Animals cannot march two by two aboard Noah’s Ark forever. In the 19th century,
the humane community made the mistake of shielding lawmakers and the public from the consequences
of unrestrained dog and cat reproduction by quietly killing the surplus, lest the animals
meet crueller ends at large. Humane societies spent most of the 20th century coping with
the consequences of that mistake, and are only just beginning to return the full fiscal and psychological
burden of the killing to the city, county, and state governments which let it continue
for decades in near-complete indifference.
Sanctuarians must likewise learn when and how to say no, if that is what it takes to
knock the legal props and hidden subsidies out from under the exotic animal traffic.
This will not be easy. We fully endorse the spirit of the Wildlife Waystation motto,
“Where no animal is ever turned away.”
Unfortunately, lawmakers and enforcement agencies have exploited sanctuarians’
generosity toward animals as a quasi-underwrite of breeding, dealing, and speculating in captive
wildlife. The breeders, dealers, and speculators’ taxes and license fees don’t even begin
to compensate society, let alone sanctuaries, for the harm they cause. Yet in part because
sanctuaries are much more visible than most animal breeders and dealers, sanctuarians take
the heat whenever the number of animals needing care far exceeds anyone’s ability to cope.
The cruel and exploitive captive wildlife traffic could not prosper any more than
could the makers of handguns and tobacco, if the profiteers were consistently made to pay the
full cost of what they do––which might happen if the public realized how high that cost is.