Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Elektra, my female Solomon Islands eclectus parrot, Eclectus roratus solomonensis.
This is the smallest and most distinctively marked of all the subspecies of eclectus parrots.

Image: GrrlScientist 4 July 2008 [larger view].


A proposed new law, House Resolution #669 (HR 669), also known as The Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, is inching its way through congress [free PDF]. Tomorrow morning, it will be heard by the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.

As written, HR 669 proposes to prevent or limit nonnative animals from becoming established in wild areas of the United States. If enacted, HR 669 will prevent the keeping and the propagation of animals that are not native to the United States that are deemed to potentially harmful to the economy or the environment, people, native species or their habitats. As written, HR 669 will require that all non-exempt exotic animals “pass” a scientific risk assessment before they can be included on the HR 669 “Approved” list prior to allowing them to enter the country or to be bred here. Species not included on the HR 669 Approved list can neither be imported or exported, nor even moved from one state to another, even if this species has been in the USA for years, decades or even longer. If a species is deemed to be potentially harmful, it will be added to the Banned list, and cannot be possessed, traded, sold, or bred, nor released into the wild.

Unfortunately, as written, HR 669 will not accomplish its stated goal for several reasons. First, it will devastate the pet industry: common but invasive exotic species (e.g. dogs, cats, goldfish and common barnyard animals) are specifically exempted, but other species — parrots, fish, ferrets, hamsters and other animals — are not. If a pet owner can prove they owned a particular Banned or Unapproved exotic species prior to enactment of HR 669, they will be allowed to keep those animals, but all other restrictions will still apply. These restrictions are severe and punitive: when a pet owner dies, relocates to another state or country or otherwise cannot keep their Banned exotic species, the only fate for those animals is euthanization. Because many pet owners view their pets as family members, they may instead opt to illegally release their exotic animals into the wild under the cover of night to take their chances, for example. If the same situation occurs to an animal breeder, the entire collection of animals would be destroyed — at great emotional and financial expense.

Second, HR 669 assumes that all nonexempt exotic species are “guilty until proven innocent.” Thus as written, HR 669 would apparently mandate that the potential harm posed by all nonnative animals bred by zoos, aquariums and conservation organizations is assessed before these programs could continue. HR 669 makes no provision for geographical differences — let’s say an exotic species poses a threat in Hawaii but nowhere else in the country. In that case, HR 669 still requires that species be included on the federal Banned list. While a zoo, aquarium or conservation program could keep the animals in their possession, they could not apply for an exception, so all other restrictions would apply. Additionally, this would also affect scientific and biomedical research programs that rely on exotic animals. If one’s research species is viewed as a potential threat, this assessment might destroy the entire research program. Further, if USFWS does not assess a particular species for whatever reason, it would automatically become illegal to share those animals with one’s colleagues in a different state, which is fairly common in scientific and biomedical research circles.

Third, USFWS has only 36 months after HR 669 is passed to assess the potential invasiveness risk for all non-exempt exotic animals present in this country. There are more than 2500 species of nonnative tropical fishes alone that are currently kept and bred in this country, so USFWS will have to assess 2.5 species of fish — just fish — every day. This is an insurmountable task, particularly because there are literally tens of thousands of exotic birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, spiders and other invertebrates that are kept and bred throughout the USA by labs, zoos, conservation organizations, private collectors and pet breeders. Based on previous USFWS performance, we know that proper assessment takes four years per species on average, which is potentially problematic. For example, this time frame would be the death knell for short-lived species that would die out in captivity before the assessment process was complete. Since importation of most exotic animals into the USA is either prohibited or severely restricted by national and international laws, even if a short-lived exotic species was Approved, where would the founder stock come from? This assessment process is further complicated by USFWS’s long history of dismal funding, chronic under-staffing and general lack of adequate training.

Despite the fact that HR 669 proposes to prevent additional invasions by exotic species — a reasonable and laudable objective — a careful reading of this bill reveals that it will fail to achieve its stated goal. As written, HR 669 is misguided, vaguely worded and will cause more harm than good. I strongly urge the members of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife to amend or change the wording of this resolution to prevent harm to those who work or live with non-exempted exotic animals.

Comments

  1. #1 Jean P-FL
    April 22, 2009

    I have lost two family owned businesses due to the ripple effect of poorly written bills. I now fear for the third one, the one I had hoped would be the last until my death. The intent, interpretation, or the vocal explanations we are receiving regarding this bill do not count. What is written is what will be the law. In reading the bill, since my livelihood depends on it, I see there will be no way for me to continue to breed my non-native parrots and make my living.

    For most of us, conservation of parrot species is a major concern all over the world. A small group of parrot breeders and owners were able to raise just at $20,000.00 in two years to go to help a parrot in high risk of becoming endangered. Those conservation efforts will no longer be there. The interest in helping the species of your pet, will fade.

    We are being told, when we call the committee members, this does not include pets. As far as I can see, there is NOTHING stating pets are exempt, and exactly what definition is being used for the word PET? Whose interpretation is going to be law? By the answers we are getting, I am sure very few committee members are reading this bill. Surprise, surprise. A bill being passed without being read?

    Non-native animals can live in one area and not in another. Wouldn’t it be in the best interest all the way around to do this with state-by-state law making. Many states already have laws (some fairly new) in place to do exactly what this bill thinks it will do.

    Thank you Grrl Scientist for getting the word out there. I am sure you are receiving a lot of heat over this.

  2. #2 Kathleen
    April 22, 2009

    GrrlScientist, where in the bill does it say that DOI is going to assess ALL non-native species in the country? At least the version I’m looking at says that they would evaluate lists of species PROPOSED FOR IMPORTATION.

    The DOI Secretary

    . . . shall promulgate regulations that establish a process for assessing the risk of all nonnative wildlife species PROPOSED FOR IMPORTATION into the United States . . .

    Obvious, that still makes it a huge issue for people who rely on importation. But where does it say that DOI will create a master list? Am I missing something? Has something changed?

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    April 23, 2009

    Kathleen – look at sec. 6, PROHIBITIONS AND PENALTIES:

    (a) PROHIBITIONS.—Except as provided in this section or in section 7, it is unlawful for any person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to—

    (4) possess (except as provided in section 3(f)), sell or offer to sell, purchase or offer to purchase, or barter for or offer to barter for, any nonnative wildlife species that is prohibited from being imported under paragraph (1);

    (6) breed any nonnative wildlife species that is prohibited from being imported under paragraph (1), or provide any such species to another person for breeding purposes.

  4. #4 Kathleen
    April 23, 2009

    Bob, the question is, how will they be compiling the lists of approved and unapproved species? I don’t see anything that says that they’re creating a master list of ALL non-native species in the US, as stated by GrrlScientist, the lists would comprise non-native species proposed for importation. That would be a much smaller list to start with.

    Still a problem for those relying on importation, but since many species are no longer imported because of CITES, would it be an issue for them?

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    April 23, 2009

    Kathleen – as the bill is written at the moment, it is not possible to keep a non-native species unless it has been put on the approved list (or it’s an exception). Hence, in practice they will have to create a master list. anything already in the US will have to be on it, and anything that will have to be imported will also have to be put on it.

  6. #6 Barry Putman
    April 23, 2009

    As a prof of biology, I am also against this resolution, for the reasons you cite. I am also of the opinion that it would inhibit research into exotics that benefit conservation efforts of both exotics and natives; further, by crippling the pet trade, public education of and support for the conservation of exotics will be inhibited, particularly in the future, as the kids who get interested in biology by responsibly keeping exotics will no longer have that stimulation. A law that restricts species that could possibly produce breeding populations in defined areas would be useful; this current resolution neither targets specific species nor considers the possibility of successful introductions. Whereas discus and oscars (tropical fish) may become established in drainage ditches in southern Florida, Hawaii or Guam, there is no chance of them becoming established in Washington State, Alaska or Wisconsin. This resolution is massive, ineffectual, naive overkill. There also needs to be a permitting process established for people/hobbiests/researchers working on/with specific species that could become established, were they to be released, issued to people in areas where there is a chance the species, if accidently released, might become established.

    The key is education. We need to educate people about the risks of releasing exotics into the environment.

    A final thought. Most of the damage to biodiversity has come through the release of domestic cats and goldfish into the environment. Why aren’t the Feds going to come and destroy our cats and goldfish?

    As a Democrat, I am very seriously questioning my support for the sponsors of this bill. It shows a grave error in judgement.

  7. #7 Gail Hildebrand
    May 27, 2009

    Thank You GrrlScientist for your easily digestable explanation of HR 669. If it is alright with you, I would like to pass along your link to friends who love parrots. I wrote to my Representatives and hope I can inspire others to do so. I help with a parrot adoption group and would hate to see anything happen to my own flock of slightly-used misfits and my foster peeps. We had a petition going during our recent adoption day and are encouraging others to write or call representatives. Keep up the good work -

    Gail (and of course Beau, Merry, Yuki and Bruno)

  8. #8 Erica Wagner
    June 17, 2009

    I am a biologist, and I am concerned about the loss of native species and I feel that far too many people obtain exotic animals they cannot care for properly because of impulse buys or “fads.” I do wonder at the ethics of taking animals out of the wild to keep as pets and even of breeding wild animals and keeping them in unnatural settings where so many fail to thrive.

    But I also realize that the keeping of many exotic animals (aquarium fish, birds and reptiles and so on) is a very large part of our society. Indeed many future biologists, veterinarians, animal trainers and conservationists are formed from experiences with these creatures as pets or classroom animals. Many people, from people who work for aquarium cleaning companies to exotic animal veterinarians, make their livings supporting this industry. Banning all or most of these animals would have a huge impact on society, emotionally and economically.

    I doubt that the bill’s engineers are setting out to make people give up their beloved pets, dismantle a multimillion dollar industry or to make (as one website stated) “kids whose hamsters have babies into criminals.” They want to get re-elected after all, and this would earn them the animosity of people from the entire range of political persuasions.

    But the bill is quite vague about how the list of exemptions will be compiled and which species will be placed on it (and which are already on it), and I am nervous about vaguely written bills.

    I suspect that the “list” when compiled will include most of the animals currently legal to own unless there is strong evidence that there have been problems with these species. But the wording of the bill does not let me “know” this so I am inclined to not support it. It reads like “We are too lazy to have done the research about where the most serious problems lie, so we are saving that work for later….you have to trust us in the meantime.”

    You can bet that there will be a lot of lobbying going on while that list is being made. Will this bill in fact change anything at all? Possibly not. At its mildest it may not do anything to solve the problems associated with the irresponsible husbandry of exotic species.

    I would more likely support legislation that regulated those who are involved in the breeding and sale of animals (domestic and exotic) much more strictly and which outlined the rights and responsibilities of both the sellers and buyers of all animals. I imagine even this sort of thing would be contentious though.

  9. #9 Erica Wagner
    June 17, 2009

    I am a biologist, and I am concerned about the loss of native species and I feel that far too many people obtain exotic animals they cannot care for properly because of impulse buys or “fads.” I do wonder at the ethics of taking animals out of the wild to keep as pets and even of breeding wild animals and keeping them in unnatural settings where so many fail to thrive.

    But I also realize that the keeping of many exotic animals (aquarium fish, birds and reptiles and so on) is a very large part of our society. Indeed many future biologists, veterinarians, animal trainers and conservationists are formed from experiences with these creatures as pets or classroom animals. Many people, from people who work for aquarium cleaning companies to exotic animal veterinarians, make their livings supporting this industry. Banning all or most of these animals would have a huge impact on society, emotionally and economically.

    I doubt that the bill’s engineers are setting out to make people give up their beloved pets, dismantle a multimillion dollar industry or to make (as one website stated) “kids whose hamsters have babies into criminals.” They want to get re-elected after all, and this would earn them the animosity of people from the entire range of political persuasions.

    But the bill is quite vague about how the list of exemptions will be compiled and which species will be placed on it (and which are already on it), and I am nervous about vaguely written bills.

    I suspect that the “list” when compiled will include most of the animals currently legal to own unless there is strong evidence that there have been problems with these species. But the wording of the bill does not let me “know” this so I am inclined to not support it. It reads like “We are too lazy to have done the research about where the most serious problems lie, so we are saving that work for later….you have to trust us in the meantime.”

    You can bet that there will be a lot of lobbying going on while that list is being made. Will this bill in fact change anything at all? Possibly not. At its mildest it may not do anything to solve the problems associated with the irresponsible husbandry of exotic species.

    I would more likely support legislation that regulated those who are involved in the breeding and sale of animals (domestic and exotic) much more strictly and which outlined the rights and responsibilities of both the sellers and buyers of all animals. I imagine even this sort of thing would be contentious though.

  10. #10 Kathryn
    October 19, 2009

    I am a Biochemist and I do have 2-parrots. I think something needs to be done to the rampant release of exotics to an area that there isn’t any natural predators. Florida is having a quite a difficult problem with pythons released into the Everglades. New York has a colony of ring-necked parrots living quite well in Central Park. Australia has major problems with all the introduced species that are killing the unique wild life on the continent. I don’t have the answer either. There is a program for sterilizations of feral cats; could their be something like that for exotics? Maybe only sell animals that would be unable to survive in the wild. Sell one sex to the public? I hope that the various committee’s that this has to go through will evaulate the options before passage.

  11. #11 Vanessa
    May 18, 2010

    When has prohibition done anything besides put more power and money into the hands of criminals? What I can’t understand is why ban exotic reptiles and birds from being bred in captivity and still allow the common practice of puppy and kitten mills. They are the most invasive of all the pet animals. I love cats, I own two that I got from rescue shelters; but nothing angers me more than people who are irresponsible with their cats. They wont get them fixed and they keep them outside to kill native animals, go feral, and mate. Banning dog fighting rings was another topic worthy of a bill; but in doing so an entire breed of dog was given a stigma that can’t be shaken. Ending the dog fights saved the lives of many of these dogs, but it also doomed thousands of bulldogs and bull terrier crosses to the gas chambers. I find that animal rights activists and conservationists need to get the facts of a situation and consider the repercussions of their plans before drilling out a bill that will involve so many critical factors.

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