Friday, January 6, 2023

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

In the years since its passage more than half a century ago, the Animal Welfare Act has become an extremely important and multi-faceted animal protection law. Building on its original premise as a measure to protect animals used in research, testing and education, the AWA’s protections have evolved to encompass the treatment of animals in roadside zoos, animal dealers, breeding facilities, transportation and other contexts. Through strengthening amendments and regulatory reforms, the AWA has continued to evolve, covering more animals, more industries and more practices. (The protections offered under the AWA do not apply to mice and rats bred for use in research and testing or the billions of animals across the U.S. farmed for food, which is why we fight for progress for them on other fronts.) As such, it is one of the primary vehicles for advancing animal protection at the federal level.

It's within this broader context that we welcome the recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it is seeking input to inform proposed amendments to enhance regulations and standards for animals covered under the AWA. Specifically, the USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service plans to propose new regulations concerning public handling of wild animals at licensed exhibitors and the training of personnel who handle such animals. APHIS will also consider expanding its requirements for environmental enrichment to promote the psychological well-being of all species covered under the AWA.

Measures like these have broad public support and merit stronger federal commitment in the form of amended regulations and vigorous enforcement. The controversies swirling around the television series Tiger King and the documentary, The Conservation Game, have laid bare the details of a dangerous, cruel and sordid industry that breeds, trades and keeps exotic wild animals for close encounters, selfie-taking, gawking and other purposes. It’s a grim life for all species of animals trapped in this industry, as we’ve demonstrated again and again. The ramshackle operations that populate this subculture serve no redeeming social or conservation purpose; they are a scourge. On animal welfare and public safety grounds, the intervention of the federal government is critical.

Environmental enrichment for animals in captivity has been a public policy concern at least since the 1980s, when it surfaced in the debates that led to passage of the 1985 Dole-Brown amendments to the AWA. In the intervening years, however, enrichment has been a subject of uneven and halting implementation and enforcement. It remains a concern not just in laboratories and roadside zoos, where animals suffer routinely in barren housing or caging with little socialization or stimulation, but in places like puppy mills, which manage costs and profit margins by warehousing dogs in confinement systems that deny them their most basic biological and behavioral requirements.

The failure of puppy mills to provide such social animals with psychological, physical and behavioral enrichment are a part—a large part—of their cruelty. We think dogs and all animals covered under the AWA deserve better, and we want to bring this neglect, suffering and mistreatment to an end.

As animal advocates, we remain fortunate that so many of the reforms we seek to advance characteristically attract bipartisan support. We are pleased to see the USDA starting down the rulemaking pathway to enhance welfare for AWA-covered animals, something that both the public and Congress support. When it comes to legislators, they are not too different from the rest of us. They share the view that animals are entitled to our basic respect and kindness, and do not deserve to be treated with cruelty or cavalier indifference of the kind so evident in captive display enterprises, commercial pet breeding facilities and laboratories. These lawmakers also understand that we have affirmative duties toward animals as vulnerable dependents, and that we have a social and political responsibility to ensure the highest possible welfare and enrichment opportunities for animals in captive settings.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be making the case for these important measures, marshaling the facts needed to carry them over the bar. You can encourage APHIS to adopt them, too, with a short, friendly communication of encouragement. The more evident the support, the better it’s going to be for animals.

Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.