The fight for public policy gains for animals at the federal level is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of spirit. Every day, in every congressional session, it’s an all-out battle to secure humane laws and regulations. Whatever we achieve, we achieve against determined opposition, including special interest groups with deep pockets, and 2023 was no exception. This was a banner year for rulemaking and key legislative work that made a difference.  

Rulemaking is particularly important within the public policy process, and we’re pleased to note that the Biden administration completed three substantial agency rules; on establishing species-specific standards for birds under the Animal Welfare Act; on big cats such as tigers and lions; and on the national organics standards for animals raised for food.    

In February, in a highly anticipated development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized species-specific welfare standards for birds used in commerce under the Animal Welfare Act. The final regulations include transportation requirements for un-weaned birds, wading areas for aquatic birds and psychological enrichment for all birds covered by the rule. This represents a critical expansion of protection for birds, whose interests are so frequently neglected under our laws.     

With respect to big cat protection, in June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an interim final rule implementing the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The rule reinforces the agency’s regulations prohibiting physical contact between big cats and the public; prohibits private owners from breeding, selling or acquiring any new big cats; and establishes the agency’s authority to confiscate big cats from violators.      

In October, the USDA finalized its Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule, which sets clear and consistent minimum standards for animal care under the certified organic label, including bans on debeaking, tail docking and the use of gestation crates. We have defended these standards via lobbying and litigation during prior administrations, and this time around we again submitted comments advocating for swift implementation. We also helped mobilize congressional letters signed by 20 senators and 57 representatives and the submission of over 57,000 supportive public comments.         

The Biden administration launched the process for four other rules subject to comment periods that closed during the year: on cruel hunting methods in Alaska, imports of live African elephants and their trophies, protection of hippos and horse soring. This administration has limited time to implement these animal protection gains, and we call on the relevant agencies to finalize them with all due speed. We’ll be pushing hard to see that happen in 2024.   

Regarding hunting conduct on Alaskan national preserves, there is no legitimate defense for the practices a rule proposed by the National Park Service in January seeks to prohibit. These disturbing methods include bear baiting, the use of dogs to hunt black bears and the killing of wolves and their pups during denning season. We helped to gather 116,000 supporter signatures for this measure.    

In March, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that our petition to list hippos as endangered under the Endangered Species Act does present scientific and/or commercial information indicating that such a listing may be warranted. As a result, the agency has initiated a 12-month species status review.          

March also marked the closing of a comment period on another important Fish and Wildlife Service rule. That rule proposes to better regulate imports of live African elephants and elephant parts and trophies, and we helped secure over 72,000 supportive signatures from the public.      

Finally, in August, the USDA proposed a new Horse Protection Act rule on the soring of Tennessee walking horses and related breeds. The rule, which was prompted in part by our lawsuit challenging the agency’s withdrawal in 2017 of a similar rule, would eliminate the industry-run enforcement system and instead assign sole responsibility to its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to screen, train and authorize inspectors. It would also prohibit the use of devices and substances integral to soring and make other needed reforms. We submitted 107,257 signatures from members of the public in support of the rule and helped mobilize a bipartisan letter signed by 126 representatives.       

In addition to these seven rules, in early December, the Department of Transportation announced $110 million in grants for 19 wildlife crossing projects in 17 states, including four Indian Tribes. The funds, authorized by the infrastructure law enacted in 2021, are part of a 5-year commitment to provide $350 million to support crossings construction to protect wildlife on our nation’s roadways, as we have advocated for years.         

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle weighed in to oppose the dangerous Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, legislation designed to gut California’s Proposition 12 and other state laws concerning animal welfare in the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the California law. This reckless power grab favors an outlier faction in the pork industry that seeks to preserve cruel confinement methods. We played a key role in mobilizing opposition to including the EATS Act or any related legislation in the Farm Bill, the multi-year federal legislation that governs a variety of food and agricultural programs.  

In August, 172 representatives and 30 senators sent bipartisan letters to House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders. These Hill letters from more than 200 legislators covering 35 states demonstrate how controversial the EATS Act has become; it’s effectively a “poison pill” that could prevent enactment of the Farm Bill. The current list of diverse opponents of the EATS Act is steadily growing and now includes more than 3000 organizations, farms and individuals.   

Although the fiscal 2024 appropriations bills have not been finalized, the House and Senate are clearly united on several animal-related provisions. The annual horse slaughter defund language, which prohibits the USDA from using funds for horse slaughter plant inspections, is included in both the House and Senate fiscal 2024 Agriculture appropriations bills. In addition, the reports accompanying the House and Senate bills include language that a group of 45 senators and 186 representatives sought at our request, directing the Food and Drug Administration to allocate funds to reduce animal testing and advance non-animal methods. In addition, both reports reiterated language that animal testing should not be used to test the safety of cosmetic products.     

We were pleased to acquire report language accompanying the House and Senate Interior and Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bills directing the full implementation of the Big Cat Public Safety Act and the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. We also secured language in both CJS reports directing that attorneys at the Department of Justice be fully trained in prosecuting Animal Welfare Act violations and that DOJ ensures that all agreements with other federal agencies are up to date to ensure prompt and efficient Animal Welfare Act violation referrals.     

In addition to our work throughout 2023 on four priority bills—the Puppy Protection Act, the SAFE Act, the PAST Act and the Humane Cosmetics Act—we worked closely with lead sponsors to secure introduction of the Better Collaboration, Accountability, and Regulatory Enforcement (CARE) for Animals Act in July. This bill emerged directly from our experience and observations of poor enforcement by the USDA in several cases, including the Envigo beagles crisis. The Better CARE for Animals Act would give the DOJ more tools under the Animal Welfare Act to seek the revocation of licenses, seize suffering animals and pursue other penalties for substandard licensees (commercial breeders, zoos, aquariums and research facilities).  While not yet passed into law, all of these bills have broad bipartisan support.  

When it comes to our legislative and regulatory work, every year is different. Yet certain things remain the same. We fight hard, we fight to win, and we thrive with you at our side in the dogged pursuit of good public policy for animals.    

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.