Calif animal welfare laws evolve, face challenge

November 13, 2011 - 12:35 PM

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — When the Humane Society of the United States released a disturbing video of a downer cow at a California slaughterhouse, it spurred an ongoing overhaul of the state's animal welfare laws that reached the U.S. Supreme Court this past week.

Images of the struggling milker, prodded with a forklift to slaughter, awakened a collective consciousness and helped the animal welfare group record the state's largest-ever margin of victory for Proposition 2, the landmark 2008 voter initiative that gives laying chickens more room in cages.

Since then, the California legislature has passed or altered 30 laws to improve the lives of animals — from sharks to dairy cattle, even animals hunted for sport. And it has banned the butchering of downer livestock — animals too sick or too weak to walk — a measure the justices seem inclined to overturn.

With a hand in nearly all of it is Jennifer Fearing, the animal group's Harvard-educated California state director who guided Prop 2 to victory then asked to stay on. In three years since moving from Washington DC, she has channeled an election about chicken rights into a successful series of HSUS-directed policy changes that have made the Golden State a U.S. leader in animal welfare legislation.

"Of all the animal organizations, HSUS has the money and the political savvy to be problematic for my clients going forward," said Michael Boccadoro, a poultry industry lobbyist. "They are on another level. We are aware of it and are watching in terms of their actions."

Using plain-spokenness and quick wit, Fearing can charm political adversaries, who say they would rather work to find common ground than face a voter referendum with more dire consequences.

"I find Jennifer to be an incredibly honest, bright and well-spoken individual," said Judd Hanna, a former California Department of Fish and Game Commissioner who welcomed her this fall to sit with hunters on the board of the state's anti-poaching reward group.

She got the attention of the fish and game department after securing $5,000 a year from HSUS to pay the veterinary bills of wardens' anti-poaching dogs.

Fearing shares the group's anti-poaching mission, Hanna said. But others did not welcome the move, which shook up the nine-member board of mostly hunters. All but two quit. Western Outdoor News called the appointment of an animal welfare lobbyist "a plot as insidious as anything you've ever seen."

California Houndsmen for Conservation, a group that uses dogs equipped with radio collars to run down terrified prey, offered to replace and increase the HSUS donation to the anti-poacher fund if the group would return the money.

"When one understand what the stated purpose is of HSUS, it's entirely contrary to one of the elements of Fish and Game's mission statement, which is to provide hunting and fishing opportunities to California residents," said Josh Brones, president of the houndsmen. "Ultimately they want to end all hunting in the U.S. and beyond."

Hanna said the time has come for his group to stop being insular and to recognize that peoples' attitudes are evolving in a state with 38 million people and just 275,000 of them licensed hunters.

"Jennifer shares the same anti-poaching views as the rest of the board," said Hanna, 70, a hunter. "I think she and people like her are going to be the future of the organization, and unethical hunters and poachers are going to be the demise of the hunter unless it gets curtailed."

Fearing also serves on a committee to develop a new strategic mission for DFG, which may include, among other things, dropping "Game" in the name and replacing it with "Wildlife," a move that would signal not all animals in California's forests should be viewed as hunting targets.

"I've been working to build bridges. I'm not some crazy Jihad terrorist," said Fearing, 40. "Let's sit down and work constructively in the areas where we agree and make animals' lives better in those areas."

In the Supreme Court last week, the justices heard an appeal from the National Meat Association, which seeks to block the 2009 state law that barred the butchering of downer cows. Critical questions about the law from the justices appeared to side with the meat industry's position.

The notion that animal welfare activists know more about caring for livestock than do farmers galls Jill Benson, the fourth-generation owner of Modesto egg producer JS West. Since Prop 2 she has fought negative perceptions by taking a mobile chicken house on the road and placing a live cam in one of her massive egg barns newly outfitted with bigger cages.

"We as farmers have always cared for our animals, but we have not done a good job in communicating to the consumer how we do that," said West, who is critical of what she describes as HSUS scare tactics. "An animal activist group can spin it with deplorable video and tell a story that the consumer believes is common practice, when, in fact, it is one bad apple."

Environmental groups credit Fearing's contacts and acumen for passage of legislation in September that banned the trade of shark fins for soup in a state that has a market second only to China. She tweets constantly and uses Facebook to goad supporters into pressuring their legislators. And she's not beyond making a spectacle to get attention if it helps animals.

As the shark-fin bill languished on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk and with powerful opposition to it, she turned to YouTube. Summoning to the Capitol a team of Corgis — like the one that accompanies the governor to work — she attached fake fins to their backs and ran them around the building as a "fin-tervention." Brown signed the bill October 7, and sponsoring Assembly members Paul Fong and Jared Huffman participated in a series of long-distance thank-you photos on Fearing's Facebook page.

"She has been able to bring people together and build bi-partisan support for animal issues," said Fong.

Since Prop 2, 26 legislators have formed an animal welfare caucus to promote meaningful changes, the first of its kind among statehouses. This year the legislature toughened financial penalties for rooster and dog fighting, prohibited the roadside sale of animals, and even updated language in laws to change "pound" to "animal shelter" and "destroy" to "euthanize," all bills the HSUS sponsored.

Advocates for the agriculture industry declined to talk on the record about Fearing but they agree that she a smart and fair adversary. Since Prop 2, they said, they have polled the populace and come to understand that consumers want eggs, meat and poultry that are humanely raised — and grocers are demanding it.

"I feel we're at another tipping point," Fearing said. "Bill Clinton is a vegan, so in some cases we're riding the wave. But what feels different is the degree to which our traditional opponent is working with us instead of against us. And that's the future. They want public opinion on their side."