News

Dispute over live animal markets touches on state, local and cultural differences

For years, animal rights activists have been seeking to bring attention to
what they believe are crimes taking place in urban live animal markets
across California. Now they are asking for an agency that has little urban
presence to take on the problem.

They are focusing their efforts on the State Fish and Game
Commission–especially on two new members who they see as more sympathetic to
the cause. Commission members have gone so far as to ask the
operationally-separate Fish and Game Department to prepare a report, due in
April or May, that will attempt to gauge the scale of the problem and what
the department might do about it.

Animal rights advocates made their case during the public comment portion of
the commission’s monthly meeting two weeks ago. Virginia Handley of the San
Francisco-based group Animal Switchboard described illegal importation and
inhumane killing of turtles and other animals that she said has been going
on for years.

“It goes back to when Willie Brown was mayor and he told Animal Control,
‘you don’t touch Chinatown,'” Hanley told the Commission Board.

“And now you want us to do it?” replied new commission member Richard
Rogers.

The answer from Handley and several other activists was, of course, yes–and
they are targeting Rogers and another new commission member, Cindy
Gustafson. Both are Scwharzenegger appointees and both are viewed more
favorably by the environmental community than their predecessors, Marilyn
Hendrickson and Sam Schuchat. Environmentalists have spoken particularly
favorably of Rogers, a Republican. Animal rights activists have often been
more critical of the commission that environmental groups, some times
calling it the “Squish & Maim” commission.

Handley and the others are asking for a complete ban importing turtles and
other animals in California for live animal markets.

They did get a couple of bills passed in the California Legislature, most
notably AB 2479, by then Assemblymember Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, in
2000. The bill bans the types of practices that activists oppose, such as
skinning, de-shelling and scalding turtles and other animals they are still
alive.

However, according to Miles Young, who served as a Fish and Game warden and
supervising lieutenant in San Francisco from 1977 to 2003, the penalties are
so weak it was hardly worth the department’s time enforcing them. A first
offense gets a verbal warning, a second a $200 fine.

“Give me six agents and a budget and I’ll do it,” Young said. Young says he
never had more than two or three agents. The city now has a slot for only
one agent–and that has been empty for months.

Meanwhile, activists have had even less luck interesting local district
attorneys and animal control departments. These groups have an obvious
interest in not angering local ethnic communities, the activists say. This
is especially true for DAs, who must repeatedly face local voters.

However, dealing with uninterested or even recalcitrant DAs is something
Fish and Game has a lot of experience in–and something Rogers said he sees
are a particular mission.

“We could put together, and in fact have, very expensive enforcement
operations and brought them to local district attorneys,” Rogers said at the
meeting. “And because of political reasons, or their own workload, they step
away.”

Often such resistance has come in rural areas, where opposition to
environmental or hunting laws can run high. In recent years, the Department
has failed to get local DAs to bring charges in some high profile cases.

This includes negligence charges not filed against an animal sanctuary in
Kern county that was the scene of a high profile attack by chimpanzees
against a man who visiting in 2004. The department has so far been
unsuccessful in getting DAs in Mendocino county to bring charges against
Lynne Gravier, a 71 year-old woman who has allegedly been breaking laws
against feeding beers for years.

However, the California District Attorneys Association sought to address
this very issue in 1998 when it set up the Circuit Prosecutors program. The
program has six attorneys who lend expertise to rural DAs–and can also help
deflect criticism when enforcement might be locally unpopular.

According to program director Gale Filter, the program has about a $1
million annual budget, he said, but delivered $3.85 million in fines,
settlements and other environmental enforcement last year, as well as
several criminal convictions. However, Filter noted, some of the program’s
sources of funding have dried up in recent years, forcing it to operate
increasingly off of the penalties it can bring.

Nor has the interaction between circuit DAs and Fish and Game always been
smooth sailing, Filter added. Environmental cases are hard to prosecute, he
said, because gathering evidence and proving cases are inherently hard.
Local DAs will usually prosecute, even over local opposition, if they have
good cases, Filter said.

“The question becomes, can you afford to lose these kind of cases?” Filter
said. “You’re making recommendations to someone who is answerable to local
constituents.”

While environmentalists and local DAs have often clashed over the years,
many in the environmental movement professed appreciation of the Circuit
program.

“They’re beginning to prosecute some things we think should have been
prosecuted before,” said Lynn Sadler of the Mountain Lion Foundation. “We
love that program.”

The DAs also bring political clout that environmentalists sometimes lack.
“They have been rather persuasive with the state legislature,” said Gary
Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. He also
suggested expanding the program.

Activists say that bringing this program or a similar one to urban areas
could be a welcome idea. The problems the rural DAs have faced–a lack of
resources and local populations that are hostile to enforcing certain
laws–are similar to what a DA who took on animal markets might face. One
activist, Eric Mills coordinator for Action for Animals in Oakland, Calif.,
said that a Chinese language newspaper once labeled him a “Nazi” for
criticizing the live animal markets.

“No one will take this on for political reasons,” Mills said.
However, numerous DAs and city attorneys contacted by Capitol Weekly did not
respond to requests for comment on this article. One that did said they had
never even heard of the problem–and wouldn’t be in a position to do anything
about it if they had.

“No one has ever asked us to enforce this,” said Sandy Gibbons, spokeswoman
for the Los Angeles Count DA, adding that this would probably fall to city
attorneys in LA and Long Beach. “We are a prosecution agency, not an
enforcement agency.”


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