On August 19, I attended and spoke at a meeting of the Board of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) on the topic of the proposed regulations by which the DGIF seeks to enforce the new law about fox pens that was passed by the General Assembly last session. Under that new law, no more licenses for fox pens may be issued and all the existing pens will be ended in 40 years. The law also requires that no more than 900 live trapped foxes be introduced into the Virginia pens collectively in any year. The DGIF staff proposed anemic regulations to supposedly enforce this law including the numerical limitation. I and other animal advocates were present at the Board meeting at which the proposed regulations were presented to urge the Board members to insist on more adequate regulations that would provide a way for the new foxes added to pens to be actually accounted for and compliance assured.
The Board, which is composed entirely of men, is to a considerable extent a new group from the people who served on that Board last year. This new group made their philosophical allegiances with the penners more than clear at the meeting. I spoke along with Lena Spadacene of the HSUS, Charles Pool and Valerie Ackerman, an experienced wild life rehabilitator. After Lena spoke, she was questioned by a member of the DGIF Board about whether she and her organization actually oppose fox hunting. She made the point that, while the HSUS does not take a position on fox hunting (which, by the way, fox penning is not), the issue before the Board was not other sorts of positions taken by HSUS but rather the contents of the proposed regulations. He continued to insist upon making the point publicly that HSUS opposes other things, such as the use of lead shot, that were not on the table at this meeting. Then, I was questioned with a clearly hostile attitude by another member of the Board who asked me to return to the microphone and who posed to me a hypothetical question about whether it would be preferable to me as “an animal lover” to have a fox sold by a trapper to be skinned for a pelt to be made into a coat or to have the fox sold by the trapper to a fox pen where the fox would get “a second chance.” I acquainted this member of the DGIF Board with the fact that wildlife may not be sold legally in Virginia which he seemed unaware of. I then was told that whether or not foxes could be sold was not the point. I suppose the point was really to put me on the spot and try to force me to choose from two unacceptable alternatives, which are not in reality the only two options for these animals. I replied that it was a Hobson’s Choice and that neither was an acceptable outcome.
What is disturbing about these exchanges is that they indicate that these members of the DGIF Board hold animosities toward animal welfare organizations and are still arguing about whether fox penning should be an acceptable and legal pursuit rather than realizing that the statute has been passed by the General Assembly placing a moratorium on fox pen licenses and phasing it out. Their role is now to establish effective regulations to enforce the terms of the new law that was passed. It would be an appropriate analogy to say that the foxes have been put in charge of the hen house.
If one takes a look on the DGIF website at the backgrounds of the individuals who serve on the DGIF Board, it is apparent that there is considerable homogeneity to the group. They all self identify as avid fishermen and/or hunters and several as being members of or actually employed by the NRA. While I have no issue whatsoever with people of these backgrounds and predilections serving on the DGIF Board, it would seem that our state should ensure that the Board is a reasonably diverse group. Surely, it is appropriate to make these suggestions:
- The DGIF Board, like all state boards, should represent a cross-section of the state and so should include both genders and a range of ethnicities. It should also bring together people of diverse viewpoints and should certainly include at least one, if not more than one, animal welfare advocate along with people of other perspectives such as hunting advocates and NRA members.
- The DGIF Board should be welcoming when it offers public comment opportunities and not use those occasions as a chance to give people with views other than their own a hard time,
- The DGIF Board members should do what they ask the public commenters to do – stay on topic. If the subject is proposed regulations, the questioning should not stray into other topics that are being brought up as a way to put the member of the public on the spot and “expose” them as holding views that are not welcomed by the other Board members.
Only Board member Bill Bolling briefly discussed the issue that we raised about tagging the foxes to account for their numbers. There was absolutely no discussion of the other significant issues that we raised such as the serious risk of rabies and how it might be prevented. It should go without saying that our comments were ignored, the proposed regulations were passed unanimously and there is now no credible mechanism for documenting that the foxes introduced into the pens in a year did not exceed the statutory maximum nor any rabies risk prevention effort. Governments should represent all of the people and our state is one with diverse perspectives on animal issues just like other issues. When regulating Boards are created that protect a single group and that disparage rather than fairly hearing other viewpoints, it is not prudent or just. Time changes old perspectives and activities lose their popularity over generations. I have no doubt that the Board of the DGIF in a few decades will be a very different body, if it exists at all. Let us hope that change happens sooner rather than later, for the well being of the animals if not for the rest of us too.
Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. To read her biography or that of our other bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires both your first and last name to be used as your screen name.