By Erika N. Chen-Walsh
This blog post was taken from a blog post on my personal blog, A Legal Perspective, that was originally posted on June 8, 2012
“To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.” ~ Sun Tzu
A certain level of divisiveness has arisen within the reptile community based on the different approaches taken by Andrew Wyatt and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). These differences came fully into the spotlight in the wake of Ohio’s Senate Bill 310, which Governor Kasich signed into law on June 5, 2012. Wyatt resoundingly condemned SB 310 PIJAC endorsed it (PIJAC Ohio_Press_Release) and Ohio Dangerous and Wild Animal Bill Becomes Law). In the interest of full disclosure, please note at the outset that the author is the Vice President of the US Herpetoculture Alliance has no affiliation with PIJAC.
To understand the differences in approaches and positions taken by Wyatt and PIJAC, it is necessary to look behind the curtains.
PIJAC describes itself as “a non-profit trade association, advocating for the pet industry, pet owners, animals, and the environment. PIJAC represents the needs of the pet industry and those they serve, promotes responsible pet ownership and animal welfare, and fosters environmental stewardship.” Its board of directors is heavily populated by executives from the big box pet stores and pet supply companies: Central Garden & Pet, PetSmart, Petco, Pet World, Inc., etc.
PIJAC’s constituents are primarily big box stores and their customers – mostly domesticated animals – dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, aquarium fish, birds, and other pets that can be purchased through pet stores as well as in the private sector. According to PIJAC President and CEO, Michael Canning, PIJAC spends more money on reptile legislation than it takes in in donations from reptile constituents.
Wyatt worked from 2008-2012 as the President and CEO of USARK before leaving that organization to form the United States Herpetoculture Alliance, Inc. (the Herp Alliance). The Herp Alliance is a science and conservation based advocacy for herpetoculture; the non-traditional American agricultural pursuit of producing high quality captive bred reptiles & amphibians (herpetofauna). The Herp Alliance endorses caging standards, sound husbandry, escape prevention protocols, and an integrated approach to vital conservation issues. The Herp Alliance will also focus on conservation, sponsoring in particular captive breeding programs that directly impact conservation of species. The health of these animals, public safety, and maintaining ecological integrity are the Herp Alliance’s primary concerns. Its board of directors will include reptile breeders and specialists, including those that work with crocodilians, venomous animals, large constrictors and varanids. They are all part of the herpetoculture community.
The difference in institutional goals is a salient one. The Herp Alliance focuses exclusively on high quality, captive bred reptile owners and breeders. PIJAC must also cover the interests of dog and cat owners and breeders, including commercial breeders and pet stores, as well as rodents, fish, birds, and yes, reptiles, too. At times, their institutional objectives may be aligned, but more often, they are at least somewhat divergent, and sometimes they are nearly inapposite.
The easiest way to understand the divergence is by way of analogy. According to Andrew Wyatt, the Herp Alliance primarily represents the interests of owners and breeders that are akin to hobbyist dog breeders, the small, private breeders that focus on breeding high quality dogs. These breeders are typically active within the dog fancy in showing or competing in obedience, hunting, lure coursing, or other dog sports. Improving the breed is the primary goal as opposed to mass production. Incident to the interests of these owners and breeders are the trades that support them, companies that manufacture reptile products or produce reptile foods, and veterinarians that provide care for reptiles.
According to Canning, PIJAC primarily represents large retail pet stores (and their interests), whose executives are prominent on the PIJAC board. These are commercial enterprises whose focus is on high volume production and profitability. Included in this definition are not just the stores themselves, but the manufacturers of all products supporting the $50 billion plus pet industry in this country: commercial pet breeders, commercial pet food manufacturers, the makers of leashes, crates, aquariums, feed, and grooming products, etc.
In terms of reptiles, this becomes a major difference. Pet stores do not sell reptiles that are not commonly considered “pets.” Pet stores do not sell large constrictor snakes such as Burmese and reticulated pythons, but private herpetoculturists often work with these animals. Pet stores do not sell venomous reptiles, but private herpetoculturists breed them. Pet stores do not sell monitor lizards and many other unusual species such as tortoises, crocodilians and agamas, but private herpteculturists do. Zoological societies obtain the majority of their specimens from these herpetoculturists. Zoos rarely purchase wild caught specimens of these kinds of animals, and many of these animals are threatened in their natural habitats due to spoliation of the environment. The protection of herpetocultue is a conservation concern of no small consequence.
These distinctions are not value judgments on either organization. These are the factual differences between the Herp Alliance and PIJAC that help to elucidate the differences in the approaches that they take and the motivations of the their respective boards of directors. These distinctions form the foundation of the significant differences between Wyatt’s philosophies and PIJAC with respect to legislation. They came to the fore in Ohio during the battle over SB 310 and illustrates why Wyatt and PIJAC took the opposite view of the outcome in Ohio.
In December 2011, Wyatt met with Senator Troy Balderson, the senator who sponsored SB 310. He also met with the director of ODA, the director of ODNR, both of their staffs, and multiple other legislators regarding the inclusion of reptiles (which have never posed a public safety threat in Ohio) in what was already taking form as a huge, restrictive legislative thundercloud for exotic animals and to educate the administration on the impact to Ohio residents and businesses. PIJAC, also became interested in and around this time and they, too, began trying to influence the governor.
Senator Balderson made multiple promises to us during these meetings. Balderson assured us that only crocodilians and venomous snakes would would fall under his permit system (no constrictors), and that the system would be favorable to industry and it would be “business as usual.” He reversed on those promises.
On March 8, 2012, Balderson introduced SB 310, seeking to enact a sweeping law to establish requirements governing the possession of multiple species of animals, which would be designated as “dangerous wild animals” as well as multiple species of snakes which would be designated under the law as “restricted snakes.” He reversed on his promise to omit constrictors. He reversed on his promise to maintain “business as usual” for the reptile industry. SB 310′s provisions with respect to snakes were so onerous and expensive that they would have served to be a de facto ban on the ownership of multiple species of constrictor snakes as well as venomous snakes.
Wyatt made the strategic decision to discontinue discussions with Balderson because at best, he lacked the political authority to negotiate, or, at worst, he was negotiating in extremely bad faith. Wyatt also made the decision not to hire a lobbyist in Ohio. At the time, Governor Kasich had made it common knowledge that two of his major issues for the legislative session were fracking and exotic animal legislation. As a result, no lobbyist was willing to take a strong position in opposition to SB 310, knowing that it would attract the ire of the governor and that engaging in that course of action might later lead to disfavor on future bills for future clients.
PIJAC took a different approach. PIJAC hired a local lobbyist named Bill Byers and, through Byers, continued to engage in discussions with Balderson as well as other members of the senate.
Something must be said about Byers. March 27, 2012 was the first day of opponents’ testimony before the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Byers was there early to meet with Chairman Hite and commented publicly in the State House hallway that he had seen Wyatt with his “tattooed and pierced followers.” He went on to denigrate Wyatt personally as well as the reptile constituents that were gathered at the State House to testify. This is the lobbyist that took a fee to ostensibly represent the interests of reptile owners opposing SB 310.
Byers arranged for Canning to be the first witness to testify against SB 310. In his opening remarks, Canning conceded that PIJAC was amenable to the permitting of venomous snakes as well as large constrictors. PIJAC was also amenable to insurance requirements; they just wanted them to be lower. They wanted Boa constrictor removed from the restricted list (consistent with Balderson’s pre-SB 310 promise that they would not be included to begin with).
At the same hearing, Wyatt testified that he opposed the inclusion of any reptiles from SB 310. He stated that the reptile industry generates approximately $30 million annually in the state of Ohio; that thousands make their livings or supplement their incomes by farming reptiles as a non-traditional agricultural pursuit; that a rational argument could not be made that working with any reptiles presented public safety risks, and that 90% of the impact of SB310 was directed at the reptile industry, hobbyists and pet owners. He requested that all reptiles be removed from SB 310 and that administrative rule making authority to add new species be removed as well.
Wyatt’s position was that further negotiations with Balderson were fruitless because Balderson had already demonstrated that the promises he made in his Senate chambers evaporated once he got onto the Senate floor. In any contest, you cannot cut and run at the opening volley. Agreeing to minor modifications to Balderson’s de facto ban constituted a loss to the reptile community, particularly because Balderson insisted on keeping an administrative rule making provision in SB 310 granted the director of agriculture unfettered discretion to add animals to the dangerous wild animals list and/or to the restricted snake list without legislative process.
PIJAC applauded the version of SB 310 that passed out of the Ohio Senate and commended Balderson personally. (Click here.)
Wyatt condemned it.
Upon reflection, it’s easy to understand why PIJAC was happy with the Senate version of SB 310: no pet store reptiles were affected by SB 310, and so it had no impact on PIJAC’s constituents. (Although additional species could easily be added to SB 310 and would have the potential to affect even pet store reptiles.)
For the same reason, Wyatt was vehemently opposed to it: it affected (and still affects) a substantial number of herpetoculturists. The insurance required of venomous owners has not been found to exist. Full legislative process was never restored to add additional species to the dangerous or restricted lists. The permitting system is a slippery slope to which additional animals can easily be added, and now, due to the Lacey Act, people with Burmese pythons, African rock pythons, or yellow anacondas cannot legally take their animals across state lines.
In addition, another bill, not related to reptiles but very related to the pet industry, was introduced in Ohio in the same legislative session. This is (ironically) SB 130. SB 130 is a puppy mill bill that is being pushed hard by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). PIJAC is adamantly opposed to SB 130 because it will impact the commercial dog trade. (Click here.) SB 130 passed out of the Ohio Senate on February 1, 2012, more than a month before SB 310 was even introduced. However, it has mysteriously managed not to be heard in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and the session is now over. At PIJAC’s behest, Byers was (and presumably still is) also lobbying in Ohio against SB 130.
While Wyatt, representing the reptile community’s interests in Ohio have been zeroed in on legislation impacting reptiles, PIJAC’s efforts were diffused over multiple bases, both reptiles (whom Canning concedes are a financial loss to them) and puppy mill legislation (which will impact the businesses of PIJAC’s Board of Directors as well as PIJAC’s members and constituents).
This is not a criticism. PIJAC is doing the work demanded by its members and constituents and that is exactly what it should be doing. Wyatt was doing the work demanded by his constituents and that is exactly what he should be doing. If there were overlap of their members and constituents, the differing approaches might beg further consideration, but they do not overlap. The reptile community’s interests will always necessarily be different than PIJAC’s. It should therefore not be surprising that Canning’s approach and Wyatt’s approach are not congruent and may even be (as in Ohio) diametrically opposed.
These differences should not divide the reptile community. Some members of the reptile community privately (and sometimes not so privately) think that venomous snakes should be legislated because one incident of careless management practices could result in backlash against the entire industry. There is a kernel of truth to that fear. However, statistically, that has so far not played out.
There are approximately 13 million reptiles kept as pets in the United States at this time and despite that number, there is still approximately only one death per year from reptiles. This is not statistically significant. Reptiles are still safer than dogs, automobiles, horses and ATVs. As an industry, we must ask ourselves if we wish to offer ourselves up as a sacrificial lamb and consent to be legislated preemptively. As an attorney, and speaking objectively, I believe that position puts reptile owners in very great peril. And in those limited circumstances in which preemptive legislation is appropriate, it must be very narrowly defined and specific so that legislative process precludes further erosion of our fundamental rights of due process.
Reptile owners need to act cohesively. The division in personalities and positions imperils the rights of all. Make no mistake but that your rights to keep reptiles are under siege, not just by animal rights activists, but also by our own government. The reptile community needs to find its footing and make its voice heard. Loudly. Now.
Failure to comprehend fully the ramifications of legislative initiatives will ensure that we will lose and that herpetoculture will die by a thousand cuts, piece by piece, with one permit here and one species there gone until there are none left.