Before the first champagne corks hit the compost pile, our new president will be tackling a list of challenges that stacked end-to-end could probably reach the moon. That’s not even counting the candidate's promises. According to the counters at PolitiFact.com, the president-elect made 510 promises on the campaign trail, which reporters will be grading on the Obameter as kept, compromised, broken, stalled, or in the works.
There aren’t many obviously animal-centric promises (excluding, of course, Promise 502: “Get his daughters a puppy,” which is currently listed as in the works) but that doesn’t mean animal-welfare activists aren’t hoping the winds of change will blow in their direction.
One of the people watching Obama closely is Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF), a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that lobbies for animal welfare legislation and works to elect humane-minded candidates to public office. He understands where the rubber of the presidency meets the road of animal-welfare.
“When it comes to animal protection, more than a dozen federal agencies have a direct impact on the lives of millions of pets, farm animals, laboratory animals, and wildlife,” Markarian wrote recently. “In years past, some of these agencies have functioned largely as an annex to industry, and have been inattentive to the wishes of Americans who care about animal welfare, food safety, and environmental protection.”
Working with the Humane Society for the United States, HSLF has created a list of 100 steps for change. Among the “big-picture reforms” impacting companion animals, Markarian numbers these as some of the most critical:
• The Agriculture Department must improve enforcement at puppy mills and crack down on abusive practices, such as animal fighting and puppy imports.
• The Justice Department must begin collecting data on animal cruelty crimes as a separate offense category in federal databases, so that law enforcement officials can analyze the trends and connections with other violence. The agency should create a new Animal Protection Division to ensure strong enforcement of animal protection laws.
• The White House should appoint an Animal Protection Liaison to help coordinate animal welfare concerns (policy issues, regulations and positions on legislation) that cut across many different federal agencies.
Two other federal agencies are on the mind of Sabine Contreras, founder of DogFoodProject.com, a pet-food industry watchdog. “A few things I’m most hoping to see are that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is granted the power to order mandatory recalls—which it currently can’t, all recalls that do happen are “voluntary” by the manufacturers—and that the AAFCO (Association Of American Feed Control Officials) is split into two distinct, separate branches: one overseeing pet food and the other the livestock feed,” Contreras says. She’d also like to see funds allocated so AAFCO does its own research on pet food, which currently isn’t the case.
“Unfortunately the pet food industry has a powerful lobby in the huge multinational companies that dominate the market, so I’m not sure how far reform will actually go,” she says. “Looking at the combined influence and the financial power of the ‘big names’ in the pet food industry, I’m rather discouraged about real, meaningful improvements. I hope I’m going to be proven wrong though!”
Randy Grim, head of Stray Rescue of St. Louis, sees the winds of change stirring inside the White House. “I am hoping that once President Obama experiences life with a family dog and sees why dogs are called man’s best friend, the human-animal bond/relationship will be viewed as a valuable asset to life,” Grim says. “More than 60 percent of American households have a companion animal and I feel that people are drawn to the animals because they experience unconditional love. This is a very powerful energy and something I think every human innately desires and needs.”
But Grim, the author of Don’t Dump the Dog (Skyhorse Publishing; August, 2009), believes Obama will be too busy with social and economic issues to make a direct, positive impact on animals for the next few years—so he’s focused on local action.
“We all know that legislation is on the books to protect animals but these laws are not enforced by the police and city departments, and many judges are too lenient if a case happens to go to court. This is why I think it’s imperative for people to do grass roots work to help the animals and to put public pressure on officials to up their game.”
Still, if Grim had the president’s ear, he’d push for an end to puppy mills and funding for free spay/neuter services for low-income residents.
“Obama represents a bold move away from hurtful prejudices,” says Donna Reynolds, executive director of BAD RAP, a nonprofit organization working to respond to issues facing the American Pit Bull Terrier, “and we would love to see this spirit of tolerance and understanding applied to our companion canines as well as their owners. There can be no room for breed-specific discrimination in a country that values personal responsibility and humane treatment for all.”
And, in case Promise 502 is still an open question, Reynolds adds: “Of course, we’d love to see him adopt a marvelous pit bull too to help demonstrate these ideals. And, we have JUST the dog!”