The 2014 legislative session has opened with a bang this year, with multiple bills affecting herpetoculture introduced in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Louisiana, Indiana, Missouri, and Maryland. Bills introduced in New York, New Jersey and South Carolina in 2013 started moving again.
At this time, there is no national organization that is representing private keepers of herpetofauna directly at the state level. PIJAC faded out with the departure of its CEO and president, Michael Canning.
Herp Alliance ceased its state level engagement (testifying and advocating directly with legislators) at the end of 2013 when it also stopped accepting donations and memberships.
Although USARK insists that it is engaged in statehouse disputes, no one from the organization has been testifying against state ballot initiatives impacting herpetoculture. On information and belief, USARK has not testified at a single state level legislative committee hearing since Andrew Wyatt’s departure in 2012. USARK recently stated on its Facebook page that, “the reason USARK has requested that state constituents speak up is because those are the voices that matter most.”
This leaves no national organization advocating for the Reptile Nation at the state level. The outcome of the Lacey Act Rulemaking will be irrelevant if it becomes illegal to own reptiles in every state. The interstate transport of Burmese pythons will no longer matter if their ownership and breeding becomes illegal.
The Reptile Nation needs advocacy and it needs it now. Advocating against the avalanche of animal rights legislation that is burying this industry and this hobby requires more than a flurry of Facebook status updates and blog posts in a helter skelter rush without any interpretation or organization. In fact, that method only creates confusion and chaos.
Stakeholders within a jurisdiction are always critical to a fight. However, there are many situations in which those stakeholders cannot or will not speak. Ohio has taught us many lessons, and one of those lessons is that every exotic animal owner who had the courage to suit up and show up in those unending committee hearings and deliver their carefully prepared testimony received a notice from the Department of Agriculture as soon as SB 310 became law that they had to bring themselves into compliance with the new, prohibitive regulatory scheme or their animals would be confiscated. Their testimony made them targets.
It’s in those situations that a national organization can bring to bear the weight of its numbers under the cloak of safe anonymity. It is the role of a trade organization to collect the data, to make the arguments, to lead, and to advocate on behalf of its constituents. Advocacy happens when your back side is not in your easy chair with a computer screen shielding you from both legislatures and the people whose passions, hobbies and livelihoods depend on your competence and your determination.
Consider the biggest heavyweight in the animal rights arena, the Humane Society of the United States, that quarter billion dollar behemoth that decided that reptile ownership is inhumane. (By the way, HSUS counts its total victory in Ohio as its #3 accomplishment for 2012.)
HSUS claims to “connect people of awareness with the reality of what’s occurring with animals.” HSUS does not sit on the sidelines and tell “people of awareness” in their respective states that they should lead their own legislative disputes. HSUS operates like a finely tuned machine, with a network of attorneys and lobbyists doing the heavy lifting of engaging on ballot initiatives. That is our model. That is what is required.
What the Reptile Nation needs is simple: advocacy.
USARK may have a very good reason for its apparent recalcitrance to personally engage in state level disputes: the federal lawsuit challenging the Constrictor Rule of the Lacey Act.
USARK used to publish its quarterly and annual financial statements on its web site. As of now, its last financial report is from 2012 and no quarterly reports were published in 2013. Although its total donations from 2012 were $244,485, its net income was -$35,766.
Facebook fans claim that USARK raised $137,000 to fund its federal lawsuit. Assuming that figure is exclusively for its legal fund, it is a drop in the bucket. A federal lawsuit, if it goes to trial, will easily run into the millions, and you can be sure that the defendants, whose pockets are deep with taxpayer money, will push it there. USARK has never come close to raising a million dollars in a year. The money simply doesn’t exist, and part of the government’s defense strategy has to be grinding USARK out of money to fight its legal battle.
If USARK is funneling all of its donations to try to fuel the federal lawsuit, then it makes sense that it cannot afford to fight at the state level as a matter of economics. This will be a death knell for the Reptile Nation. Under this scenario, even a hard fought victory against the US Fish & Wildlife Service will be meaningless if large constrictors are outlawed piece by piece.
In the vacuum of national representation, stakeholders in every state need to organize and now, and they need to start directing their donations toward their own organizations to fund their own legal defense funds. Terry Wilkins and Polly Britton in Ohio emerged as industry and community leaders, retaining an attorney, finding named plaintiffs, and seeing a lawsuit all the way through to a federal appeal.
This is the model that the Reptile Nation is going to have to follow in order to have any chance at all because there is no one left at the national level with the talent and the resources to combat the tenacious march of legislation that is being pushed by the animal rights industry.