HSUS: The Pacelle Propaganda Machine Hampers Progress For Animals

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) blogged today, lambasting Andrew Wyatt andU.S. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) for opposing  U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney’s (R-FL) animal rights driven House Resolution 511.  HR 511 seeks to amend title 18, United States Code (the “Lacey Act”), to prohibit the importation of nine species of constrictor snakes as injurious species.  These include the Burmese python, the reticulated python, the North African rock python, the South African rock python, the Boa constrictor, and three species of anaconda.

Andrew Wyatt preparing to testify before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs

Andrew Wyatt preparing to testify before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs

Apparently, the reptile community, led by Andrew Wyatt, has struck a nerve with the $200 million plus per year animal rights legal behemoth, HSUS.  Pacelle’s angst at Wyatt is not particularly surprising.  Since co-founding the United States Association of Reptile Keepers in 2008, Wyatt has emerged victorious in more than two dozen state engagements defending the rights of herptile owners as well as multiple federal entanglements.  These victories have come on a shoestring budget and against HSUS’s powerhouse millions.  Wyatt is most certainly a bothersome thorn in Pacelle’s manicured paw, and one that will not go away.

Pacelle said today, “But the reptile lobby—yes, there is such a thing—has been thrashing its collective tail and saying how benign these snakes are and that cold weather will prevent the snakes from going much farther than the Everglades (I guess it’s no matter to these supposed snake “lovers” that the snakes will freeze to death).”

Pacelle’s comment is interesting for two reasons.  First, using HSUS’s own statistics, 17 people have been killed by large constrictors in the US since 1978.  HSUS further claims that there have been 1,111,768 large constrictors imported since 1977.  Using those figures alone, without factoring in the millions of large constrictors bred in captivity this country since 1978, it makes the risk of death from a large constrictor less than 0.01%.  Large constrictors may not be “benign,” but the risk of being killed by a vending machine, a clothes dryer, a sand hole, a shark attack, a dog or a bee are significantly higher than the statistical risk of being killed by a large constrictor.

Second, Pacelle seems to concede that the snakes will freeze to death if they travel north of the most southern tip of Florida.  HSUSclaims on its own web site about reptiles, “Wild animals are best left in the wild where they belong.”  As great a shock as it may come to HSUS, animals in the wild are not frolicking about making daisy chains and counting stars as they do in Disney movies.  Wild animals die of disease, injury, predation, starvation, and yes, from the elements of nature.

Clearly, Pacelle’s remark is intended only to inure sympathy from animal lovers who don’t truly understand the issue. HSUS has used similar rhetoric about dog breeders, showing a decided recalcitrance to distinguish between responsible breeders and puppy mills.  Responsible reptile owners and breeders do not want to see the suffering of any herptile, and they certainly don’t advocate releasing any captive reptiles into the wild.

Wayne Pacelle and convicted dog fighting felon, Michael Vick, following the Atlanta Falcon’s $50,000 donation to a cause related to HSUS.

Pacelle’s tantrum continues, “Somehow the snake lobby, in the form of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, has hoodwinked a number of Republican House members and apparently convinced them that this is a matter of “economic freedom.”

This is about economic freedom. HSUS does not have the right to deprive American citizens of their property interests and their livelihoods simply because Pacelle doesn’t agree with reptile ownership.  It must be incredibly empowering for one person to believe that his ideology should translate into law for every American citizen, but it is the duty of lawmakers to protect the interests of their constituents, no matter how much it upsets Mr. Pacelle.  The majority of people involved in true herpetoculture, the breeding and ownership of captive bred reptiles, care immensely about the health and welfare of the animals they keep.  (If Pacelle is truly concerned about the welfare of animals, perhaps he should revisit his endorsement of convicted dog fighting felon, Michael Vick, who, for a monetary donation, now receives Pacelle’s endorsement.)

Pacelle speciously condemns U.S. Rep. Southerland for condoning the import of  “dangerous invasive species into the country for use as pets, even if they are creating ecological havoc, injuring and killing private citizens, and costing the nation millions of dollars in terms of containment activities.”  (When he hasn’t got facts, he embellishes.)  Notably, Pacelle provides no back up for his inflammatory and false rhetoric.  HSUS’s fall back plan is to continue to terrify the public about non existent threats in order to feather HSUS’s own legal nest.  (HSUS has conceded in its Motion to Intervene in Ohio that it has an economic interest in winning legislative engagements because doing so attracts more monetary donations.  I will be writing on that topic next.)  If Pacelle needs to succeed in state and federal legislatures in order to attract the hundreds of millions of dollars that pay his six figure salary, perhaps he should set his sights on those more dangerous predators, such as vending machines, clothes dryers and sand holes.

U.S. Representatives Fleming and Southerland, Dr. Brady Barr, Shawn Heflick, Colette Sutherland and Andrew Wyatt should be commended for bringing facts to the table regarding the threat of pythons in the Everglades and the economic impact of arbitrary and capricious government action.  The role of our representatives in Congress is to protect our rights from unnecessary and harmful legislation, not to ensure that Pacelle has enough “wins” to fund HSUS into perpetuity.

HR 511 Part Two: The Truth About the Everglades and Heroes of the Subcommittee Hearing

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Part One of this series discussed the background of HR 511 and the falsified junk science upon which it is based.  Part Three dispels other myths and propaganda about constrictor snakes.

The HR 511 Subcommittee Hearing of November 29, 2012

cap-reflecting2The U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a legislative hearing on HR 511 on November 29, 2012.  (The hearing in its entirety can be viewed online here.)  Andrew Wyatt had originally been invited to supply all four opponent witnesses to testify against HR 511 in the Subcommittee hearing. However, in the two weeks prior to the hearing, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (“PIJAC”) became interested in the issue and asked to provide an opposition witness as well.  The final witness panel included the following (each witness’s written testimony is linked to their name):

In opposition to HR 511:

Dr. Brady Barr
Resident Herpetologist,
National Geographic Society and
Dangerous Encounters
Geographic Channel

Shawn K. Heflick
The Python Hunters
National Geographic Channel

Andrew Wyatt
President and Chief Executive Officer
United States Association of Reptile Keepers

Colette Sutherland
“The Snake Keeper”
Spanish Fork, UT

In support of HR 511:

John Kostyack
Vice President
National Wildlife Federation

Peter Jenkins
Executive Director
National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species

Opening Remarks from the Hon. John C. Fleming (R-LA), Subcommittee Chair

Chairman Fleming demonstrated an immediate understanding of the issues and a genuine concern for the economy and the protection of small businesses, stating, “I have concerns that H.R. 511 will end up destroying hundreds of small businesses without providing any real benefit to the Everglades.”  He further noted that HR 511 now seeks to “go far beyond the recommendations of the South Florida Water Management District, the State of Florida and the Fish and Wildlife Service.”  Chairman Fleming delivered a thorough and accurate history of issues surrounding constrictor snakes and the Lacey Act, and herpetoculturists owe a debt of gratitude to Chairman Fleming for his thorough and thoughtful analysis of the issue.

Pythons in the Everglades

Dr. Brady Barr, Resident Herpetologist, National Geographic Society, expressed frustration at the amount of misinformation being Barr-Sutherland-Heflickdisseminated to the public and clearly explained, as a PhD in the field of reptiles, why pythons cannot survive beyond the southernmost tip of Florida, stating that,

“The snake species referenced in this hearing are native to tropical regions of the planet, whereas the Southern Everglades is a sub- tropical climate characterized by seasonal temperature fluctuations and more extremes. These tropical snakes do not possess the behavior and physiology to tolerate cold temperatures. Low temperatures (below 15 degrees C.) result in these snakes having problems digesting prey, acquiring prey, avoiding predation, moving, essentially surviving. Furthermore, these snakes lack the innate behavior to seek refugia at the onset of cold weather conditions, resulting in quick death or a compromised immune system in which the snake ultimately succumbs. Climate data reveal that temperatures found in Southern Florida simply are not conducive to the long term survival of large tropical snakes. When it gets cold, these snakes die.” (Emphasis added.)

This opinion was echoed by Shawn Heflick, a biologist with a Masters Degree on invasive species in Florida. Heflick has traveled the world capturing and studying pythons, anaconda and boas on five continents.  He is a licensed Python Agent for both the Everglades National Park and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and he is the Host of National Geographic WILD’s series, The Python Hunters, which explores the conservation issues of reptiles around the globe and educates people about their plight.

Heflick described a study he conducted with collaboration from the USDA, APHIS and FWS ith permitting from Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission, which included both Boa constrictor and Burmese Pythons. Within just four days, 100% of the specimens in the study had died due to exposure to the cold.  (Jacobson et al. 2012.) Heflick testified that the wild Burmese python population has not expanded beyond south Florida and further, that it is on the decline, due to massive die-offs in 2009/2010, rendering population numbers lower than ever before.

Colette Sutherland, of The Snake Keepers, also testified that her snake breeding business had suffered severe adverse consequences due to the fear that Boa constrictor would be added to the Lacey Act list of injurious species.  Animals for which she had paid $25,000 per pair, she was unable to sell.  Sutherland and her husband ended up euthanizing 60 adult boas because of the market collapse caused by bills such as HR 511.

Brady-WyattAndrew Wyatt, president of USARK, testified about both economic impact and the fallacy of pythons thriving outside of southern Florida.  Wyatt cited a new study published in Integrative Zoology, “Environmental temperatures, physiology and behavior limit the range expansion of invasive Burmese pythons in southeastern USA,” by Jacobson et al., which is a collaboration by University of Florida, USDA and real python experts.  It is a peer reviewed paper confirms what other studies have also demonstrated: “…[I]t appears unlikely that the Burmese pythons inhabiting the Everglades will be capable of expanding or becoming established far beyond southern Florida”.  Wyatt referenced at least four other cold weather studies from the University of Florida, USDA Wildlife Services, Savannah River Ecological Lab and Vida Preciosa International that refute the USGS projections.

Wyatt offered compelling testimony, citing the Georgetown Economic Services (GES) report on “The Modern US Reptile Industry” in 2011. According to GES, listing these nine constricting snakes on the ‘Injurious Wildlife’ list of the Lacey act would cost small businesses as much as $104 million in the first year and much as $1 billion over 10 years. This action has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce, The Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of the Advocate, Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), PIJAC and USARK.

Proponents of HR 511, including but not limited to the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”), the Natural Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species (“NECIS”), and the National Wildlife Federation (“NWF”) promote misinformation about pythons in the Everglades.  The testimony of both Peter Jenkins and John Kostyack relied heavily on information from HSUS.

Kostyack testified that, “Giant constrictors are top predators in the south Florida ecosystem. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), they are voracious and indiscriminate consumers of native wildlife and can grow rapidly to more than 20 feet in length and 250 lbs in weight.”  Using the typical hyperbole of the animal rights industry, Kostyack ignored the fact that the largest feral Burmese python in U.S. history was captured in August 2012, measuring in at 17.7′.

Jenkins, also following the HSUS mantra, testified about an “excellent new report by the Humane Society on Constrictor Snake Incidents,” which stted that reticulated pythons “are known as particularly “vicious,” prone to unprovoked attacks and in their native ranges are reported as “man eaters” more so than any other species of snake.”  Jenkins provided no reference for his inflammatory rhetoric.  Jenkins went on to try to take issue with the GES report cited by Wyatt about the economic impact of reptiles in the US.  Notably, Jenkins failed to offer any evidence to refute it.

Ranking Minority Member Gregorio Kilili Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) expressed concern about the risk of large constrictors becoming a problem in the island territories.  Representative Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam) expressed concern over the problem of the brown tree snake in Guam.

However, perhaps Representative Steve Southerland, II (R-FL) summed it up best, when he stated that HR 511 is “a solution looking for a problem.”

Chairman Fleming concurred, stating that, “Florida is handling a Florida problem that exists only in Florida . . . our Federal Constitution created a government in which the rights of the federal government would be limited and all other powers would go to the states.”

Herpetoculturists in the U.S. need to make their voices known in a respectful and professional way.  Please commend Chairman Fleming and Representative Southerland on their intelligent treatment of this issue, which is being driven hard by ideologues who believe that reptiles should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.

HR 511 Part One: An Introduction to HR 511 and the Junk Science Behind It

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Because we focused on the snake, we missed the scorpion.”  ~ Egyptian Proverb

The Legislative History of HR 511

US Congressman Tom Rooney (R-FL)

On January 26, 2011, U.S. Representative Thomas J. Rooney (R-FL) introduced House Resolution 511 which seeks to amend title 18, United States Code (the “Lacey Act”), to prohibit the importation of nine species of constrictor snakes as injurious species.  These include the following: of the Indian python of the species Python molurus, including the Burmese python of the species Python molurus bivittatus; of the reticulated python of the species Broghammerus reticulatus or Python reticulatus; of the Northern African python of the species Python sebae; of the Southern African python of the species Python natalensis; of the boa constrictor of the species Boa constrictor; of the yellow anaconda of the species Eunectes notaeus; of the DeSchauensee’s anaconda of the species Eunectes deschauenseei; of the green anaconda of the species Eunectes murinus; of the Beni anaconda of the species Eunectes beniensis.’

Following its introduction, HR 511, it was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.  From there, on February 14, 2011, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.  On February 27, 2012, it was discharged from that committee.  It was ordered to be reported on September 28, 2012 by a voice vote and was finally reported out on October 5, 2012 and referred to the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs.  On November 29, 2012, the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs held a hearing on HR 511.

What is Behind HR 511 and Its Predecessors:  Garbage In, Garbage Out

At the outset, it is important to understand the facts.  HR 511 is not something new.  Permutations of it have been floating around for approximately five years.  In 2011, the Obama administration was successful in passing a rule change to the Lacey Act that made the interstate transport of four species of constrictor snakes illegal.  That rule change went into effect in February 2012.

The rule change was contingent upon the same fatally flawed “science” upon which the proponents of HR 511 continue to rely.  The house of cards began with the United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) and its “study” entitled, “What Parts of the US Mainland are Climatically Suitable for Invasive Alien Pythons Spreading from Everglades National Park” (“Climate Match”).  The study was flawed for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • An incorrect conclusion that Burmese pythons can live throughout the bottom third of the United States;
  • It was erroneously based on temperature averages instead of temperature extremes leading to the incorrect conclusion that tropical pythons can survive the low temperatures ranges in areas outside of the southernmost tip of Florida;
  • It falsified data points in the published study by manufacturing data that were not in the data set by as much as 60% for a single country; and
  • It was widely condemned by scientists from around the world, including the National Geographic Society, University of Florida, and the Thailand National Natural History Museum.

The Climate Match was followed by a second piece of propaganda, a gray paper entitled, “Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Species of Pythons, Anacondas and the Boa constrictor.” (The “Constrictor Report”.)  The Constrictor Report, a USGS internally generated document, was based on the junk science Climate Match. It was not peer reviewed and it was not published in any journal.

A panel of eleven independent experts from the National Geographic Society, the University of Florida, Texas A&M University and others condemned the Constrictor Report, stating in a letter to the US Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee that the Constrictor Report was “not scientific” and “not suitable as the basis for regulatory or legislative policy decisions.”  Even USGS itself, in its response to an Information Quality Act challenge generated by the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (“USARK”), was forced to admit that, “This document was not designated by the USGS as a highly influential, scientific document.”

HR 511 and its predecessors that have been buzzing around Washington DC like a throbbing swarm of bees is based on a “study” with falsified data and incorrect assumptions.  Its foundation is ideological propaganda meant to terrorize lay people and influence law makers.

Part Two of this Series will examine the truth about pythons in the Everglades and the heroes of the subcommittee hearing on November 29, 2012.

Part Three will dispel fact from fiction about constrictor snakes.