Congress finds bipartisanship on animal protection issues

WASHINGTON — Congress has found something cute and cuddly to agree on.

Plagued by bitter division and fierce infighting, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have found rare consensus on legislation to protect dogs, cats, horses, tigers and bunnies from abuse.

In the first few months of the new 115th Congress, House members and senators have introduced more than a dozen bipartisan bills on animal welfare, including a measure to bar people from keeping tigers, lions, and other big cats as pets and legislation to outlaw the sale of shark fins in the U.S.

About half of those stand a strong chance of passage this session, said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of  The Humane Society of the United States.

"I think we're positioned for success," Pacelle said. "You have such a diverse group of people — from conservative Freedom Caucus members to moderate Republicans to liberal Democrats — who have come together on an issue they know their constituents care about."

Americans' passion for animals is what's driving Congress to act, said Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., the new co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, which has more than 120 members.

"The biggest reason that this issue crosses party lines is that is has so much public support," said Buchanan, who was named the 2015 "legislator of the year" by the Humane Society. "About a third of my district is seniors, and most of them have pets that they love. I've had dogs and cats and horses myself, but I never realized how much passion there was for animals until I got this job 10 years ago. It comes up at almost every one of my town halls."

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., co-chairman of the caucus, said Americans have become increasingly vocal about how much they care about their pets, wildlife and farm animals.

"Members of Congress are realizing that protecting animals is not just the right thing to do, it's also developing to become potent politically," he said.

Blumenauer said that point was underscored last fall in Oklahoma, where animal protection advocates defeated a "right to farm" ballot initiative that critics said would have allowed abusive "puppy mill" operators to shield themselves from laws against animal cruelty. Residents of the conservative state, which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the same election, defeated the initiative by about 20 points.

Animal welfare advocates also helped pass a ballot measure in Massachusetts last year to ban extreme confinement of farm animals and an initiative in Oregon to ban the trade in ivory, rhino horns, and other body parts from wild animals.

Those votes have helped convince members of Congress from both parties to support animal protection laws at the federal level, Pacelle said.

"Supporting animal protection also allows them to soften their image with their constituents and show compassion," he said. "Animals help humanize them."

Among the bills that Congress is considering:

Big Cat Safety Act: Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., teamed up to offer this bill to ban the possession and breeding of lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats by private individuals or unqualified exhibitors at roadside zoos. Thousands of big cats are being kept in people's backyards and basements or in poorly maintained roadside zoos, creating a serious safety hazard for the public while threatening the cats' health, the bill's supporters say.

Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act: This bill would provide grants to domestic violence shelters who allow women fleeing abuse to bring their pets with them. Supporters say women are often reluctant to leave their abusers because they fear the men will harm or kill their pets. The legislation is sponsored by Reps. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich, and Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act: This legislation by Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., would outlaw "soring" — the intentional infliction of pain on the legs and hooves of Tennessee walking horses to create an exaggerated gait prized in competitions. There also is separate legislation to stop the drugging of race horses.

Dog and Cat Meat Prohibition Act:  This bill bans the slaughter and trade of dogs and cats for human consumption. Although consumption is low in the United States, it does exist and is legal in many states. The legislation, sponsored by Buchanan and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., would ban the practice nationwide.

Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act: The bill by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., would ban the sale of shark fins in the U.S. Shark fins are sought by fishermen to fill the demand for shark fin soup. The fishers cut off the shark's fins and then throw the animal back into the sea to drown, starve or bleed to death.

Humane Cosmetics Act: This bill by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., which has wide bipartisan support, would ban the testing of cosmetics on rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and other animals.

Prevent Animal Cruelty and Torture Act: This sweeping legislation would create the first nationwide animal cruelty bill, empowering federal prosecutors  to go after people who abuse animals on federal highways, at a federal facility, or as part of a business that sells pets across state lines. It is sponsored by Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Ted Deutch, D-Fla.

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