Joe Yurgine: Animal welfare suffers in Trump era

December 2, 2018

For the first time in 130 years, we have a president who doesn’t have a dog in the White House. Is this a big deal? You decide.

The last president not to have a dog was William McKinley, who had only kittens, a parrot and a few roosters. According to his ex-wife, Ivana, President Donald Trump hates dogs and has called it “low-class” to own pets.

I mention it because with this background and solely out of curiosity, I decided to sit in on a Chicago Bar Association discussion, where the topic was “Animal welfare in the Trump era.” Animal protection is a subject to which little attention has been given. I went in to the discussion thinking when you have a leader who doesn’t like or enjoy dogs and pets, the chances are the welfare and protection of animals at the federal level is not going to be good.

Two speakers appeared, one being attorney Tony Eliseuson, who works for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is a nonprofit organization that focuses on companion animals, captive animals, farmed animals and wildlife. ALDF does this through advocacy, promoting legislation and litigation. As an attorney, Tony deals with issues mainly at the federal level, which means paying attention to federal statutes, such as the Federal Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Act, to list a few.

The other speaker was Rachael Bale, a journalist for National Geographic. Her beat is wildlife crime (such as elephant and rhino poaching) and animal exploitation. In 1980, we had 1.2 million elephants; today, we are down to about 350,000. Many of the creatures that exist on the planet are vanishing and might not be around for future generations to see. If this thought tortures your psyche as it does mine, none of us has seen the dodo or tyrannosaurus rex either. Earthly conditions can lend to their ability to adjust. Today, however, we have humans (habitat destroyers, poachers, trophy hunters, climate change deniers, etc.) who are the problem.

Both speakers spent a lot of time discussing governmental data collection. We know there are 15 executive cabinet departments, such as the USDA, DOC, etc. These agencies are enormous data collection and analysis factories. When you report on or spend time litigating to protect U.S. citizens and animals, scientists and organizations such as the ALDF and National Geographic use and mine the data collected by governmental agencies extensively. It assists them in documenting and analyzing gun incidents, pollution, foodborne diseases, lead and chemicals in waterways, elephant poaching, polar bear trophies, illegal wildlife trade, shooting wildlife on public lands from helicopters, reducing pet deaths in hot cars and on airlines (41 pet deaths on United flights in 3 years), puppy mills, use of animals in research and scores of other issues.

What has happened is the Trump administration, through Trump’s minions and political appointees of these agencies, has crippled their work. Here’s how and why.

The data is disappearing. It’s being blacked out on government websites. The data concerns material and phenomena the appointees oppose, animal welfare being one of them. To understand why this is happening, it’s best to read Michael Lewis’s book “The Fifth Risk,” which discusses the consequences in America when people with no interest, curiosity or understanding of how government works, are given control of the government. As Lewis writes and explains, “Under each act of data suppression usually lay a narrow commercial motive, a gun lobbyist, a coal company, a poultry company.”

Once we got over this depressing fact, the speakers spent time discussing how they are coping in this environment. If you are a law grad thinking about joining an organization such as the ALDF, here is a sample of the types of cases Tony handles.

• Helping to free Tony the tiger, a maimed and dying beast held captive at a truck stop for 17 years. Roadside zoo cases are many.

• Filing a complaint against a Tennessee couple for using caustic material on the hooves of walking horses to make them step higher.

• Assisting Lucky, a very socially depressed Asian elephant who did not like living alone, to get additional companionship at the San Antonio Zoo. If you think elephants are not smart and have no feelings, read “The Elephant Whisperer” by Lawrence Anthony.

• Trying to free Lolita, a 7,800-pound orca from the Miami Seaquarium.

The list goes on and is endless.

At the end of the discussion, the question arose as to what we can do when there is no motivation at the federal level to protect animals. Spreading awareness of what is happening is important. There are state anti-cruelty and wildlife laws with states being urged to be more aggressive. Individually, citizens often can bring public nuisance claims to enforce these laws. Finally, here’s a closing thought. During this season of generosity, support the Kankakee County Humane Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, which is totally dependent on memberships and donations. In 2017, they saved the lives of 267 dogs.

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