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Animals and the Law: Myths and Misconceptions

Published 06/15/05
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 36 Number 2, Summer 2005

In the course of our everyday lives, we humans encounter other animals in a wide variety of settings and situations. We may view farmed animals in transport trucks on the highways, companion animals in “pet” shops, and captive exotic or wild animals used for entertainment or kept as “pets” in the residences of friends or neighbors. If we are fortunate, we may encounter wild animals when hiking or exploring at wildlife refuges or nature preserves.

It is both convenient and comforting to assume that specially-written laws protect the animals in each of these situations from harm. Unfortunately, however, such an assumption is misguided.

Misconceptions abound about the level of protection United States federal and state laws provide for our animal friends. We want to believe that our country has adequate safeguards in place to protect animals from cruelty and exploitation, so we often readily accept that our nation’s laws do the job right.

In this article, API examines and debunks some of the myths surrounding several federal and state laws related to animal treatment and care. Animal advocates have made great strides through legislative advocacy. But our work, in both the halls of power and in the public eye, is far from finished. There is more for us to do — and more we can do — as we aim for the day when animals are truly treated with the respect they deserve.

We hope you will feel empowered by the knowledge in this article and will join API in ensuring that animal protection laws truly protect animals.

Animal Welfare Act

Myth: The Animal Welfare Act provides broad protection to all animals in the U.S.

Reality: While the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) does grant animals some regulatory protections, these regulations are neither sufficiently specific nor adequately enforced.

Originally passed in 1966, the AWA extends minimal protection to certain warm-blooded animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. The AWA mandates minimum standards of care for certain animals with regard to housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary services, and protections from extreme weather.

All of these rules initially sound great for the animals, but on closer examination, the law’s shortcomings — exemptions and limitations — are apparent.

For example, in 2002, Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, an amendment to the AWA that excludes birds, mice, and rats bred for use in research from the definition of the term “animal.” This amendment means that the protections afforded by the AWA do not extend to the animals most commonly used in research. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began accepting comments from the public as part of the process of formulating standards regarding the humane treatment, care, and transport of birds, rats, and mice when not bred for research purposes. API and other animal protection organizations are working to take an active role in the USDA’s rulemaking process on this issue.

Birds, mice, and rats are not the only animals exempt from the AWA’s definition of the term “animal.” The Act also fails to afford protection to horses not used for research purposes; farmed animals intended for use as food or fiber or for use in the improvement of animal nutrition, breeding, and management; nor does the AWA afford protection to animals housed in retail pet facilities.

In addition to the above exemptions, the AWA animal care standards are minimal and do not adequately protect even the covered animals from mistreatment, neglect, and improper handling and training. In essence, the AWA provides animals with only the most basic of necessities to stay alive.

Further, enforcement of these minimal standards is a longstanding problem. The USDA has the authority to enforce the AWA through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Under APHIS, roughly 100 inspectors are responsible for monitoring conditions at approximately 12,000 facilities throughout the United States. This means that many facilities are not routinely inspected.

API is particularly concerned about the minimal standards required of and the lack of enforcement of animal exhibitors, including circuses. For example, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that USDA officials have repeatedly ignored obvious physical trauma to animals, eyewitness accounts of abuse, and sworn testimony from former circus employees who report mistreatment of elephants.

Because our current federal protections are inadequate, progressive cities and counties across the country are tackling the issue of wild and exotic animal displays. To date, 27 municipalities have outright banned the display of wild or exotic animals, and several of those used API’s model legislation!

API is also concerned that the AWA addresses the care and treatment of animals in “pet” shops only in limited circumstances (only wild and exotic animals are afforded AWA protection in retail pet facilities). State legislation can help bridge this gap by mandating humane care standards for all animals housed at pet shops.

What you can do: Support legislation prohibiting the display of wild animals for human entertainment, as well as legislation that extends protection to all animals in pet shops. Contact API to find out how! In addition, do not patronize entertainment that uses animals. For a list of animal-free circuses, please visit the Circus Resources section of www.MoreBeautifulWild.com or call API.

Endangered Species

Myth: The Endangered Species Act protects all endangered and threatened species from any harm.

Reality: The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) is valuable to animal protection worldwide, and while its history is filled with stories of imperiled species that have recovered or are on their way to recovery, it is also filled with complex legal loopholes and dubious policy interpretations that have the potential to actually harm threatened and endangered species.

Passed by Congress in 1973 with the goal of protecting endangered species throughout the world, the ESA now recognizes more than 1,700 plant and animal species as endangered or threatened. The ESA prohibits the taking, import or export, or selling or offer to sell of any listed endangered or threatened species.

Exceptions can be made by allowing the issuance of permits authorizing otherwise-prohibited activity for scientific purposes, for enhancing the propagation of the survival of the species, or for the incidental taking of endangered wildlife. Through these exceptions, the federal government allows circuses, roadside zoos and menageries, and canned hunts to be viable businesses in the United States —thereby allowing animals to be imported, used for entertainment, and killed under the guise of conservation.

Canned hunting operations are private trophy hunting facilities that offer customers the opportunity to kill exotic and native animals — including threatened and endangered species — who are trapped within enclosures. Because the animals are fenced in and unable to escape, hunters are usually guaranteed a kill.

Generally, the animals used in these hunts are captive-bred, hand-fed, and accustomed to people. Sport does not exist in the canned hunt; it is merely shooting tame or semi-tame animals, often at point-blank range. Although this abhorrent practice continues to grow, many states are taking action against it. So far, 11 states have successfully passed legislation banning canned hunts.

Recently, the Bush Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed policy that would more easily allow the importation of endangered species into the United States for use in such activities as canned hunts, circuses, zoos, and the exotic pet trade. Although proponents claim that this proposal would provide revenue for global conservation efforts, the policy would, in reality, aid in the expansion and resumption of the trade in the body parts of endangered species from around the world. API has submitted detailed comments to the government about this policy, which at press time had not been withdrawn and awaited final action.

In addition to exempting such activities as canned hunts, the ESA also allows exemptions for education, research, and entertainment. Further, through captive-bred wildlife permits, individuals are legally allowed to privately possess endangered or threatened animals. The ESA does not regulate private possession; it merely allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prosecute individuals who illegally possess endangered species. In addition, because captive-bred tigers are not considered endangered, they are not protected by the ESA and can be legally bred and possessed.

What you can do: Spread the word that the ESA allows for such practices as canned hunts and support city and state legislation banning canned hunts, display of wild and exotic animals, and the private possession of exotic animals. Contact API to learn if there is relevant legislation in your state and keep an eye on our publications and website for more opportunities to be involved with issues facing endangered species.

Exotic “Pets”

Myth: Federal law oversees the keeping of exotic animals by private individuals.

Reality: The possession of an exotic animal as a “pet” is not regulated by the federal government. This means that there are no federal laws governing caging requirements, permitting, or care and treatment of exotic animals kept as “pets” in private hands.

The Lacey Act is often misidentified as a federal law that oversees the private possession of exotic animals. The reality is that, like the ESA, the Lacey Act primarily regulates the importation of fish, wildlife, or plants in and among the United States, but does not regulate private possession of such beings once they are “owned” and housed entirely in one state. The Lacey Act allows the U.S. government to prosecute persons in possession of an animal illegally obtained in a foreign country or another state, but it does not govern any aspect of an animal’s care and treatment.

In 2003, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act amended the Lacey Act to ban the importation, transfer, and sale of large cats for use as “pets” within the United States. This legislation does not ban all private “ownership” of these prohibited species, but does outlaw the commerce of these select animals for use as “pets.” This amendment is a positive step towards stopping the interstate commerce in large cats kept as “pets.” In March of 2005, the Captive Primate Safety Act was introduced on the federal level; if passed, it will add nonhuman primates to the list of animals that can not be imported, transferred, and sold for use as “pets” within the United States.

State governments have taken the lead in regulating the sale, possession, and use of captive wild and exotic animals in the United States. Laws vary from state to state on the type of regulation imposed, which may be a prohibition, a license, or no regulation at all. In addition, laws vary with regard to the specific animals that are regulated. Currently, 35 states have some form of law governing the issue.

Unfortunately, in the states that do have bans, partial bans, or permitting and licensing requirements, individuals often sidestep the law by using an AWA exhibitor’s license as a loophole. These individuals claim to be animal exhibitors, thereby circumventing state exotic “pet” laws. These individuals may exhibit a couple of times to bypass state prohibitions, but the animals they keep are, in actuality, “pets.” While the AWA license requires compliance with the minimal animal care standards, the AWA does not oversee “pet” care.

What you can do: Contact your city, county, and state legislators to tell them that, for the safety of both humans and other animals, you do not want citizens in your area possessing wild animals as “pets.” For more information on the dangers of exotic “pets,” please visit www.MoreBeautifulWild.com. API actively introduces legislation on this issue; contact us if you’d like to learn how to get more involved.


Myth: Federal law ensures that slaughterhouses in the U.S. are heavily regulated and strictly monitored.

Reality: Congress enacted the Humane Slaughter Act in 1958 in response to extensive public concerns about the cruelty and abuse of farmed animals in slaughterhouses. In 1978, Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), which amended existing law and required, for the first time, that all federally-inspected slaughterhouses adopt certain humane handling and slaughter methods. Unfortunately, there are several important gaps in the protections provided by HMSA.

The HMSA requires that animals be “rendered insensible to pain” before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut. But noncompliance is a serious, widespread problem.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for enforcing the HMSA, has repeatedly issued HMSA noncompliance reports based on ineffective stunning. Animals are either repeatedly being hit with the stunning device because the device did not render the animal insensible to pain on the first blow or the animals are moving through the skinning and dismemberment process while conscious. This translates into unimaginable suffering on the part of the animals.

A further flaw with the HMSA is that it excludes poultry from protection under HMSA. While millions of cows, pigs, sheep, and goats receive some basic protection from the law, the statute leaves behind the greatest volume of animals killed for human consumption: birds. Approximately seven billion chickens, ducks, and turkeys are killed in the U.S. annually, and, because this law does not apply to them, many of these animals have their throats cut while fully conscious.

HMSA statutes also fail to include state-inspected and small custom slaughterhouses. As a result, practices at these facilities vary and can be difficult to ascertain.

What you can do: Our daily food choices affect farmed animals. By eating a plant-based diet, you can save lives. Order API’s Going Veggie — A Beginners Guide. You can also contact Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and request full enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act:

Mike Johanns
Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave. S.W.
Washington, DC 20250

National Wildlife “Refuges”

Myth: The National Wildlife Refuge Act establishes sanctuaries for wildlife where human activities are strictly limited to have the least impact on the wildlife.

Reality: Under current law, the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) is to administer “a national network of land and waters for the conservation, management and restoration of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” This refuge system is the most comprehensive and diverse collection of fish and wildlife habitats in the world, encompassing more than 90 million acres in all 50 states.

The majority of people who visit refuges do so to hike, bird-watch, take photographs, and enjoy nature. Refuge visitors expect to be safe and to have the opportunity to view wildlife without the fear of witnessing the pain and suffering of a trapped, poisoned, or shot animal.

As lands specifically set aside to provide a safe home for animals, refuges should be maintained as inviolate sanctuaries. Instead, they are used by hunters, trappers and others for the commercial and recreational killing of animals. Some refuges also use lethal control to “manage” the refuges. This means that a large number of wildlife refuges allow the intentional trapping, hunting — including hound hunting — and poisoning of wild animals.

Unfortunately, wildlife-killing “sports” in the refuge system are destined to increase due to the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, which designates hunting and fishing as “priority uses” and stipulates that they “receive enhanced consideration” by refuge managers. The law requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) prepare a comprehensive conservation plan for each refuge that identifies and describes several things, including the distribution, migration patterns, and abundance of fish and wildlife populations within the planning unit, and the significant problems that may adversely affect the populations and habitats of wildlife within the planning unit. The Act will bring a certain degree of needed scrutiny to the FWS and its management of the NWRS. Given the “priority use” designation of hunting and fishing within the Act, however, an increasing number of refuges are likely to be opened to consumptive wildlife uses.

What you can do: It is important that citizens get involved! Learn how by at www.BanCruelTraps.com or by calling us. You can also check the FWS website for the status of refuge plans in your state and, prior to their published deadlines, submit comments urging that the refuges be managed using non-lethal techniques and that hunting, trapping and poisoning be eliminated: http://refuges.fws.gov/habitats/refugePlanning.html.

Leghold Traps

Myth: The cruel and antiquated steel-jaw leghold trap has been banned from use in the United States.

Reality: Each year, more than four million animals are trapped and killed for their fur in the United States. Millions more are trapped and killed in the name of “livestock” and “game” protection and for “nuisance” animal control. Whatever the purpose, the consequences for the trapped animals are the same: pain, suffering, and death.

The steel-jaw leghold trap, a restraining trap with spring-loaded steel jaws that clamp on an animal’s foot, leg, or other body part when triggered, is the most commonly used trap in the U.S. Animals caught in leghold traps can experience joint dislocations, fractures, damage to teeth and gums, self-mutilation, and death. Organizations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association have declared the leghold trap inhumane.

While the leghold trap has been banned or severely restricted in more than 80 countries, there is no nationwide law banning its use in the United States. Eight U.S. states have banned the use of the leghold trap, but trapping laws vary widely from state to state and are, in general, poorly enforced. Many states have few restrictions on the types of traps that can be used or the number of animals that can be trapped. Only a handful of states require or offer trapper education courses and, as a result, most trappers learn about trapping “in the field.” Four states do not require trappers to check their traps at all, and 20 states allow animals to suffer in traps for two to four days. Only Georgia regulates how a trapped animal must be killed.

The actual number of animals injured or killed by traps is difficult to determine. Few states monitor the number of target animals trapped each year, and most do not require trappers to report non-target captures (such as dogs and cats) at all. Additionally, millions of animals are trapped by private “nuisance wildlife control operators” in this growing and largely unregulated industry. Unfortunately, because population modeling and furbearer data collection are so poor in many states, we do not know the impact trapping has on threatened species.

API is actively working to represent the majority of citizens who consider wildlife to have inherent value and to be worthy of preservation. This view should be reflected in the policy decisions and spending priorities of wildlife agencies.

What you can do: Learn more about trapping in API’s new book, Cull of the Wild, which complements our award-winning video of the same name. Get your copy by calling API or on our website. Contents are also available at our newly-revamped, interactive website, www.BanCruelTraps.com, along with lots of valuable information about how you can stop trapping.

It can feel disheartening — or sometimes even heartbreaking — to acknowledge the suffering that animals experience every day. The fact that so many people have misconceptions about legal protections for animals can make a humane advocate’s job feel even harder.

But knowing the facts is the first step toward taking effective action. Armed with the truth, you and API can share knowledge with others and push for meaningful animal protection laws and policies. Together, we can change both hearts and minds — and better the lives of all animals.

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