Conservation news

Apply Animal Welfare Act rules to recreational hunting, says advocacy group

Red lechwe. Photo by Ian Restall/Wikipedia

Red lechwe. Photo by Ian Restall/Wikipedia

  • The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) says captive hunt ranches are operating in a legal loophole, and need a stricter standard over treatment of their animals.
  • Ranches should abide by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the organization’s senior staff attorney, Anthony Eliseuson, argues in a letter to the USDA’s animal care unit.
  • Ranchers keep certain breeds of animals and allow them to be culled via hunting for a price.

An animal advocacy group wants landowners with captive wildlife for hunt to be governed under the same rules that govern humane and legal treatment of animals in the US. A recent investigation by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) found that most of these canned hunting ranches – and likely all of them – are operating without what’s called “an exhibitor’s license.”

Also known as captive hunt facilities, the facilities either import or breed and then kill some of the exotic or endangered animals at the facilities. Typically, breeding is done for the “propagation of the species,” according to submitted application materials online, and animals are thinned out through guided hunting for a price.

The 30-day public review period on four current applications or renewals for captive hunt facilities expired August 31. It was part of a mandatory review period for all new and renewed licenses for these captive hunt facilities. Permitting for the facilities is currently done through a lengthy application and permit application through the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. The agency could not be reached for comment on the issue.

The ALDF says these facilities operate in a legal loophole, and should be required to follow a stricter standard in regards to the treatment of the species. They should also abide by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), says ALDF’s senior staff attorney Anthony Eliseuson.

“Captive hunt facilities are commercial enterprises that profit from selling the opportunity to view and kill the animals they exhibit, often including endangered and threatened species,” said Eliseuson in an August 17 letter to the USDA’s animal care unit.

Specifically, the law says that “any person exhibiting any animals which were purchased in commerce or the intended distribution of which affects commerce, or will affect commerce, to the public for compensation is an exhibitor and must be licensed.”

More significantly, the AWA governs human care standards like access to adequate food, water, shelter, and veterinary care.  If hunting ranches were governed under the AWA, enforcement would help ensure animals were not suffering from lack of those basic necessities, according to Eliseuson. Other practices are included, such as the ability to legally intervene if a hunting ranch mistreats any animals under the guidelines of the AWA.

Captive hunt facilities are remarkably mainstream across the US and around the world. They aim to appeal both to those who want to view animals in the wild and to hunters’ desire to track and kill them. Among the most well-known of these operations is Turner Ranch Outfitting, owned by Ted Turner Enterprises, which runs several facilities. They could not be reached for comment on the issue.

The ALDF also wants to increase pressure during the public commenting period on several captive hunt facilities which are currently applying for new licenses or renewals. Eliseuson said that the ALDF is willing to take legal action to resolve the permissions.

There are four applications being reviewed for culling, captive breeding, interstate commerce and export through a website run by the Federal Register called Regulations.gov. The website houses federal regulations and other related documents issued by the US government in a searchable online database. It allows for open posting of public comments on application under the 30-day review period.

One of these applications is under the name of Jack L. Phillips of Gladewater, Texas for a renewal of his 5 year-old captive-bred wildlife registration. The application is for the red lechwe (Kobus leche), “to enhance the propagation or survival of the species” for five more years. Phillips could not be reached for comment.

In the application and related correspondence publicly posted on Regulations.gov, Phillips states in a letter that he is raising the red lechwe for propagation of the species only.

“We are a ranch operation,” writes Phillips in a letter from earlier this year. “We do not have a license or registration under the Animal Welfare Act regulations of the U. S. Department of Agriculture or any state license.” Phillips also refers to his operation as “ranching for restoration,” a common application of the law among of the at least two dozen such ranches around the country. There are similar operations overseas: notably in countries like South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

According to application materials from Phillips, there are several ways the red lechwe are cared for in his herd.

“The herd is culled and the very old animals are hunted each year, to get rid of the inferior animals and the animals are allowed to breed freely, on the 8,000 acre ranch. Any progeny are also allowed to roam free, grow to adulthood, and allowed to freely breed in an effort to carry on the breeding and population to increase the herd.”

Phillips also describes how the animals are hunted, and why.

They “are culled as their parents before them… to maintain a superior herd.”

How the animals are kept – and die – are legal questions the ALDF wants to address, says Eliseuson.

“It’s just one of those situations that nobody paid attention to these areas to see if they follow” AWA rules, Eliseuson said. He said that by the ALDF’s count, there are “hundreds” of these canned hunting facilities throughout the US.

Eliseuson says it goes beyond just a clear cut case of non-compliance, and his organization is willing to pursue a legal route if necessary.

“It’s morally wrong,” he said.