Tag Archives: Debbie Leahy

The Elephant in the Room with the Reptiles

As a litigator myself, I have always told clients that litigation is like finding a piece of string on the floor that leads out a closed door. Sometimes, when you pull on that string, a ball of yarn rolls to your feet.  But sometimes, you pull that string, and an elephant walks into your sitting room.

boa constrictor elephant2On December 18, 2013, USARK filed its Complaint against Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, and US Fish and Wildlife Service challenging the Constrictor Rule to the Lacey Act.

The Defendants responded with a highly technical Motion to Dismiss and USARK responded with an even more technical Response containing a tortured explanation of how USARK is now a conservation organization.  We await the government’s Reply which is due within the week.  So far, all of the legal wrangling pertains to pleading deficiencies alleged by the government in USARK’s Complaint.

As Herp Alliance has stated repeatedly, we think that USARK will be able to amend its Complaint to correct those pleading deficiencies such that it can overcome the hurdle of standing.

So far, this has little to do with arbitrary and capricious rule making or a reach by the government through the Lacey Act to try to restrict interstate commerce, which is the meat of USARK’s complaint.

We have been asked repeatedly for our opinion of USARK’s case.  The strength of a lawsuit does not lie solely in the application of facts to the law.  We like USARK’s legal argument.  Nonetheless, the case is weak, very weak, and for one major reason:  money.

If the rumors on Facebook are true, USARK has raised $137,000 toward the lawsuit.  If this lawsuit goes to trial, it will easily cost more than ten times that amount, which is far more money than USARK has.  Without the funds to continue the fight, the case will die on the vines.  The government knows that USARK is underfunded, and their legal team is probably acutely aware that USARK is going to labor intensely just to make it through discovery, much less early dispositive motions like the pending Motion to Dismiss.

Individuals who are invested in the interstate commerce of large constrictors should reach deeply into their pockets now and donate to USARK’s Legal Defense Fund if they want this lawsuit to continue, otherwise there will be little chance to succeed.

USARK's lead attorney, Shaun Gehan, announced today that he has left Kelley Drye and started his own firm.
USARK’s lead attorney, Shaun Gehan, announced today that he has left Kelley Drye and started his own firm.

Another problem for USARK is that their lead counsel, Shaun Gehan, the attorney who has so far signed all of USARK’s pleadings, announced today on LinkedIn that he is no longer with Kelley Drye and has started his own firm.  Although Kelley Drye is a very large firm with tremendous legal resources, the abrupt departure of USARK’s lead counsel and presumably the attorney most knowledgeable about the case, is very bad news for USARK.  Yes, another attorney can step into those shoes, but it will be expensive to bring that attorney up to speed.

But the frailties of the federal lawsuit are not the elephant in the room with herpetoculture today.  We have a much bigger problem on our hands, and that problem is the landslide of state ballot initiatives that are marching unfettered across the country right now.  Even if USARK wins the federal lawsuit, it will be immaterial if it is illegal to own herps at the state level.

USARK has not testified at any of the state level committee hearings in 2013 or states2014.  Andrew Wyatt, former President and CEO of the Herp Alliance, testified at the Committee Hearing of Maryland House Bill 1124 (Criminal Possession of Dangerous Wild Animals), where the bill sponsor had Debbie Leahy (Captive Wildlife Regulatory Specialist, HSUS) seated at his side to present the bill to the House Committee.  Prior to joining HSUS, Leahy founded the animal rights group Illinois Animal Action, which she headed for eight years. She then joined PETA and lead their nationwide campaign against circuses and roadside zoos. PETA has bragged about Leahy that she “has dashed onto killing fields to disrupt pheasant hunts,” and “dressed as a giant rabbit to protest cruel animal tests.”

stop_sign_HSUSDebbie Leahy is not an attorney.  She is an extreme animal rights activist.  And she sat in the Maryland General Assembly aside Representative Eric Luedtke and presented a piece of legislation to the House Environmental Matters Committee and helped deliver a first reading of a bill.  This is a single example.  Lousiana is currently trying to outlaw carpet pythons, among others, and the enormous, over-reaching West Virginia Dangerous Wild Animals Act sailed through both chambers virtually unopposed and now sits on Governor Tomblin’s desk.  HSUS is clear on its web site that it believes all reptile ownership should be forbidden:

“Captive snakes and other reptiles are difficult and dangerous to care for, and released or escaped snakes wreak havoc on the environment.”

HSUS (http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/exotic_pets/).

The animal rights industry is winning the war against reptiles with bill after bill going unopposed across the United States.  Being allowed to ship Burmese pythons between states will be an expensive and meaningless victory if it is a criminal act to own them privately.

2014 may be a turning point for herpetoculture and the time to act is upon us.

HSUS: Lying is a Thriving Vocation

“Those who are capable of tyranny are capable of perjury to sustain it.” ~ Lysander Spooner

On June 8, 2012, I attended the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) 4th Annual Animal Law Conference in Chicago. This is an all-day event with a series of speakers on animal law topics for which attorneys receive credit toward Illinois’ mandatory continuing legal education (CLE). Approximately forty attorneys attended and one of my law partners, David H. Hopkins, an avid gun dog enthusiast and breeder of English Springer Spaniels, moderated the segment on due process rights in animal law.

I am the Vice Chair of the DuPage County Bar Association Animal Law Committee, but one of the reasons I attended this CLE was because the second presentation on the agenda was “Wildlife Enforcement Case Study and Exotics After Zanesville.” The presenter was Debbie Leahy, Captive Wildlife Regulatory Specialist, HSUS, Chicago. I was actively involved in the opposition to SB 310 and came to know who the HSUS players in Ohio were. Debbie Leahy was not among them.

I did a little research on Leahy’s background after hearing her speak. Prior to joining HSUS, Leahy founded the animal rights group Illinois Animal Action, which she headed for eight years. She then joined PETA and lead their nationwide campaign against circuses and roadside zoos. PETA has bragged about Leahy that she “has dashed onto killing fields to disrupt pheasant hunts,” and “dressed as a giant rabbit to protest cruel animal tests.”

I was not able to find any record of her being on the bar in any state, nor does HSUS bill her as an attorney, so I am not sure why ISBA felt she was qualified to give a CLE presentation to Illinois lawyers, but I digress.

Perhaps it is because her background is not legal, but I was appalled at the inflammatory rhetoric she used in her presentation and by her multiple misstatements of fact and exaggerations. Clearly, Leahy felt she was pitching to a friendly audience, but the ease with which she misinformed was shocking, and Herp Alliance members should pay close attention, because Leahy spoke directly to HSUS’s strategy with respect to reptiles as well as other exotic animals.

HSUS has coined the catch phrase “DWA,” meaning Dangerous Wild Animals. Its list of “Species of Greatest Concern” includes: Big cats, small wild cats, bears, primates, wolves, venomous reptiles, large constrictor snakes, and alligators and crocodiles. HSUS’s written goal is to pass laws “limiting the possession of these animals to zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries (GFAS).” According to Leahy, “Exotic animals are in every nook and cranny of the country, in tiny pens and sheds, shut up in people’s basements and locked in bedrooms.” Her written presentation rejected even permits to possess exotic animals in favor of a total ban on ownership.

Leahy opened by gloating over the HSUS victory in Ohio in which she described the long fought battle with former Governor Strickland beginning in 2010 and over which HSUS finally prevailed. She glowed that she was pleased to report that Ohio is now a state “that bans wild animals as pets.” HSUS is thus conceding that SB 310 had nothing to do with Zanesville. It was the result of HSUS pressure and influence since 2010. For HSUS, Zanesville was the happy coincidence that pushed their ship over the finish line.

In discussing exotic animals, Leahy opined that large constrictor snakes are “high maintenance deadly predators.” She further stated that pythons and Boa constrictor are second only to big cats in human deaths. She said that there have been 17 human deaths since 1978 caused by deadly constrictor snakes nationwide. (According to HSUS itself, as of 2009 there were more than 13 million snakes living as pets in the United States.) According to Leahy, the problem with escaped large constrictors has reached the point where, “Escaped pythons are springing out of toilets, attacking people in gardens and ambushing children playing in their yards.”

Importantly, HSUS also testified in Ohio that there have been 17 human deaths caused by constrictor snakes since 1978. However, at both times HSUS made this statement, it failed to provide any support for it. Moreover, Leahy’s outrageous exaggerations about pythons “springing out of toilets” and accosting humans in their yards are false rhetoric designed to terrorize the public.

We must control this dialogue and present a true image of snakes in captivity. We cannot allow HSUS to perjure itself in support its tyrannical campaign to end reptile ownership.

Leahy provided an HSUS “Factsheet” to help summarize the immediate peril of “Illinois Incidents” dating back to 1997. Included in the HSUS list of incidents were two dead snakes (a 15′ Burmese python and a 7′ Boa constrictor) found frozen to death next to a fence at a truck stop and a 4′ albino Burmese python found sunning itself on the pavement outside of a Starbucks. In fact, notwithstanding HSUS’s outrageous allegations to the contrary, even their own “factsheet” lists only one injury in Illinois since 1997 from a reptile (the strangulation death of a 3 year old by his parents’ African rock python on August 29, 1999). One incident in fifteen years! This is a tragic fluke, not a problem. Bee stings cause more deaths than snakes.

Leahy then moved on to Illinois SB 3264, the controversial and painfully ill conceived bill introduced by Senator Heather Steans on February 1, 2012. HSUS was fully supportive of SB 3264′s provisions as it was written as well as later drafts, and has been working with Senator Steans on a promised revision this fall. Leahy admitted that HSUS is gearing up already for the coming legislative session and is gathering support for Steans from AZA and GFAS accredited sanctuaries as well as lining up the experts that they are planning to bring in to testify. In addition, she encouraged all supporters of SB 3264 to begin calling their state senators and representatives now to voice their support for this HSUS initiative. (Herp Alliance will issue an action alert for its members at the appropriate time to begin voicing our opposition if this comes to fruition.)

Leahy also revealed that HSUS has its eye on Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri, which she described as having “weak or non-existent laws.”

Leahy described three different times the “vigorous, vocal and obnoxious” opposition to “reasonable DWA legislation.” In fact, she had a slide in her PowerPoint presentation listing the vigorous, vocal and obnoxious opposition that included seven organizations. Second on the list was USARK, under the leadership of Andrew Wyatt (immediately after the Zoological Association of America). She described these groups as “industry interest groups and private owners represented by an umbrella organization.” Congratulations, Andrew Wyatt, you put the reptile community at the top of the list!