WASHINGTON, D.C.—Government touches every aspect of modern life. There is a government program, sometimes three or four, for everyone. Government programs relating to animals generally fall into three categories: animal welfare, public health and safety and environmental/conservation.
Animal welfare programs are based in agriculture. They are predicated on the notion that keeping animals in dangerous, unhealthy conditions results in agricultural products (meat, dairy, leather, etc.) that are harmful to humans. This is the part of government that defines and enforces standards for agricultural use of animals. Most people are thoroughly in favor of this kind of program because they do not want themselves or their kids to get sick from eating bad food.
Public health and safety programs include animal control offices, the humane societies and other agencies and groups that look after pets. These are the shelters and animal rescue folks. It is a bad idea to allow lots of wild dogs and cats to breed unchecked in urban areas. It is something that can seriously affect public health and it can allow disease vectors to start to decimate local populations of domesticated pets. Most people are thoroughly in favor of this activity too.
The environmental/conservation activities of government are varied and cover everything from providing green spaces in or near urban areas to legislating and maintaining wilderness areas to support indigenous wildlife. The core principle here is that we all live on one planet and a diverse and healthy ecosystem is required to sustain all life on the planet, including humans. Interestingly, this is the area of governmental involvement that is most controversial: the one that is dedicated to the idea that we want to sustain human life on this planet.
The current call for austerity and cutbacks in virtually all government programs will affect each of us. It does not matter who you are, cutbacks to police, fire and emergency services, cutbacks to maintenance and inspections of roads, bridges, elevators and airplanes, will affect everyone. Certainly, the proposed cutbacks to programs to the most needy and vulnerable people in the nation will make their lives more difficult. And cutbacks to animal-related programs will inevitably make those programs less effective.
In terms of animal welfare, in every state of the union the proposed cutbacks will result in fewer agricultural inspectors, conducting fewer inspections covering a larger caseload. In most states, local public health officials already describe the current level of inspections with terms such as barely adequate, minimally effective and dangerously underfunded. Reducing the funding for these programs even more will inevitably result in dangerous public safety scandals such as more E. coli outbreaks, contamination of watersheds by agricultural runoff and potential disruption of the basic food supply.
Cutbacks to health and safety programs mean closing animal shelters and the destruction of tens of thousands of animals who might have found homes. It also means reduction in staffing levels of trained animal control professions and turning over those duties to minimally-trained police and fire personnel, adding to their work overload. Increasing populations of semi-wild animals in close proximity to urban areas will endanger domesticated pets and their owners. These semi-wild populations also negatively affect native indigenous wildlife.
The programs most at risk though are the environmental/conservation programs: the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each of these programs has an important role in serving the public. If you have visited a national park in the past decade, then you know that previous budget cuts have limited public access to many areas and increased the cost to the public for using park facilities. The Department of the Interior is charged with the management of public lands and facilities and cutting back on these activities increases the amount of corruption and malfeasance, where private interests profit from the property we own in common without paying us for their use.
The EPA has suffered particularly during recent republican administrations and has already seen its staff and budgets slashed across the board. Public research libraries used by government inspectors, agency investigators and private consumer groups were closed, leaving the only research resources available in the hands of the industry groups under investigation—an obvious conflict of interest. Among the least well-funded programs within the EPA are programs to monitor and report on contamination of domestic and agricultural animal populations by industrial pollutants.
Critics of government spending often cite waste and inefficiency as principle reasons for cutting funding, but these criticisms are largely a matter of doctrine rather than practical reality for most government programs affecting animals: these programs have felt the budgetary ax relentlessly for the last 15 years. There is no more fat to trim. More cuts result in basic cutbacks to infrastructure and staff levels that make the programs less effective and actually more costly in the long run.
That is the key aspect of budget cutbacks for these agencies: cutting funding today is a short-term, short-sighted solution that will inevitably result in higher costs in the future to deal with false economies enacted today. And while we are cutting these programs, millions of people and animals are affected, endangered and in some cases die. What is public safety worth? What is animal welfare worth? What personal cost to ourselves, our families and our pets are we willing to pay in exchange for temporary fiscal economy?
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