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The legal fight over animal rights

The John Ball Zoo's Amur tiger
Courtesy of John Ball Zoo

It often seems like we care less about each other than we used to – or at least, we are choosing policies not designed to help society in general or the next generation.

Our lawmakers have been happily giving tax cuts to the rich while letting our infrastructure fall apart. It is far more necessary for today’s students to get higher education and far harder for them to afford it. Racism and xenophobia seem to be exploding.

But paradoxically, there’s one area where we do seem as a society to have more compassion – our attitude towards animals.

Last week, I talked about a bill now before the Michigan House of Representatives that would fix a previous legislative error, and allow the breeding of large carnivores in captivity.

That’s good, if done under the regulations and genetic standards set by AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in zoos and sanctuaries accredited by them.

But this bill (HB 5778) would allow non-accredited zoos to breed them as long as they followed the proper rules. There’s a split in the zoo community over this. Ron Kagan, the CEO of the Detroit Zoo, thinks this doesn’t provide a sufficient enforcement mechanism.

Peter D’Arienzo, the head of Grand Rapids’ John Ball Zoo, does support it, he told me last week, in part because he thinks it may not be politically possible to get a bill that would limit breeding to accredited member zoos.

The two men presented their contrasting views on Stateside yesterday. I support Kagan here; he is a trained research zoologist of some renown. D’Arienzo, who has won notice for his management skills, is not; he spent 20 years in the movie theater business.

There hasn’t been much legislative action yet on this, and given that this is an election year, I’m not sure there will be. But there’s another animal welfare bill package that seems likely to excite even more attention and controversy. State Rep. Hank Vaupel of Fowlerville introduced two bills, HB 5916 and 5917, to regulate pet shops. Vaupel, who is in his 70s, is a longtime veterinarian, race horse breeder, and a former head of the Michigan State Veterinary Association.

He says his bills would require pet stores to keep detailed records on any dogs they sold and require them to be purchased from reputable breeders. Those sound like excellent ideas.

But animal welfare groups say this is deceptive. Beatrice Friedlander, a lawyer who is president of Attorneys for Animals, told me yesterday that these bills would in fact allow pet stores to buy dogs from the inhumane large-scale breeding operations known as “puppy mills,” again without any sufficient scheme to regulate them.

And they would prevent local communities from imposing stronger standards on pet stores, something that makes me suspicious, and reminds me of the old maxim that Republicans are in favor of local control except when they are not.

What I do know is that pet stores nationwide are pushing similar bills. On the other hand, Attorneys for Animals suggests a complete ban on the sale of dogs, which isn’t very realistic. What I do know is that there seems to be increasing recognition that animals are living, sensitive beings, and that we should protect their welfare.

I only wish we would extend that attitude to people as well.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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