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Opinions, Editorials, Letters

OPINION August 24, 2007


A Savage Journey to the Heart of a Dream of Compassion

Stewart Metz, M.D.

The Aviculture Advisory Commission of Pierce County

On August 21, four of the seven members of the Pierce County Council of Washington State met to consider recommendations, forwarded to them by County Executive John Ladenburg, for positions on the Aviculture Advisory Commission (AAC). The AAC was ostensibly created in response to long-standing concerns about the treatment of parrots (and other birds) by a handful of breeders in Pierce County, Washington. Two Councilmembers, Richard Muri and Robert Bush, however, had worded the Ordinance mandating the AAC in such a way as to morph it into something less clearly related to avian welfare. Nonetheless, the controversies surrounding this Commission remain focused on avian welfare.

I was asked by the Editorial Board of this website to express my views of this meeting, since I was in attendance. I do so as an individual, reflecting my personal views and not those of any organization.

Discussion opened with a tirade of complaints from the breeders themselves; they were impassioned but not necessarily accurate in the facts. The nominees, they complained, were heavily weighted towards "Animal Rights" people. This complaint seemed to me ironic (and unjustified) for several reasons—but not the least of which is the fact that the Ordinances co-sponsors wrote the bill with definitions of the positions designed to be so remarkably restrictive that (it would seem) only persons who were breeders or were sympathetic to their cause, could be nominated. It appears that the breeders (and co-sponsors of the bill) might have been taken by surprise that superlative candidates were identified who fit the criteria, and were both knowledgeable and determined to be impartial (as determined by pre-nomination vetting).

Thereafter, Muri (to one's surprise) quickly took control of the meeting, declaring that he would vote "No". In doing so, he prevented any possible confirmation of the nominees, since this required a unanimous vote to achieve a majority at this meeting, and the other three councilmembers members were absent. Councilmembers Gelman and Lee quickly fell into line with Muri. Councilmember Goings voted "No", but expressed a caveat that that perhaps, in view of the absence of any "Yes" votes, that was the only practical option open to him. Councilmembers Bunney, Bush and Farrell were conspicuous by their absence. The absence of Bunney was particularly egregious, since he had been involved from the outset in the issue of providing some degree of protection to breeder birds in Pierce County and had publicly stated that he was in favor of this (as had Councilwoman Gelman). If they really supported this goal, their silence in supporting the roster of nominees seems even more disappointing.

"Animal Rights Extremism": the Mantra of the Breeders

It is the contention of the breeders who dissented with the list of nominees (but not some other breeders) that the nominees were largely a group of "Radical Animal Activists", who were biased in favor of reform (they never identified exactly which nominees they were concerned about). Muri agreed: the reason given by Muri and Lee for voting "nay" was that there was imbalance in the composition of the nominees in favor of such 'radical' elements. The howls of partiality seemed disingenuous, even risible, when one considers the complete absence of balance—in the other direction—in the Council's own deliberations. Such one-sided decision-making extends back to the initial Council Meeting of 2004. At that meeting, they invited an extremist anti-legislation advocate from the AFA to provide a lengthy address; however, it is of note that they failed to invite a counter-balancing speaker or challenge the woeful factual misinformation which was presented [here»]. Recall also that Muri has been quoted as stating to his alleged friend and drinking buddy Robert Vincent (of Scudder Parrot Depot, the seat of many of the animal welfare abuses alleged) that he (Vincent) could rest assured that no Ordinance would ever get passed which was designed to reform breeding practices in order to protect the breeder birds (ibid.) Yes, there has been overt partiality throughout this process, but it has not been on the side of pro-reform persons seeking to improve the welfare of breeder parrots.

I had been afforded the opportunity (which is available to any citizen) to suggest some nominees for the AAC to the County Executive, who then passed his selections from amongst all nominees, onto the Council for approval. In doing so, I worked closely with several other persons, including two breeders from Pierce County. At first, I deluded myself into thinking that there might be a chance to improve the welfare of breeder parrots in Pierce County, as well as human health. After all, it was these concerns that (ostensibly) led to the formation of the AAC in the first place. In my transient optimism, I had forgotten that Muri had told me personally—at a meeting with Councilwoman Gelman—that his AAC was formed in the interests of the breeders, rather than in the interests of improving conditions for birds—and that "Animal Rights" people would be excluded from the deliberations. If there was any evidence of specific bias in the selection of nominees or in the outcome, it lay in Muri's attitude, not in the selection of the list of nominees. I had also forgotten for a moment the blatant conflicts of interests and ethical lapses in Muri's (mis)management of this entire affair, as previously summarized (ibid.). Muri's response at the meeting quickly jolted me back to reality.

Nonetheless, the breeders complained that their candidates had not been properly considered for positions on the AAC, and inferred that the nominees were biased against them. Interestingly, in stating these views, they implied that County Executive Ladenburg himself, who forwarded the list of nominees after months of deliberation, either did his job poorly or was not impartial. Furthermore, labeling many of the nominees as "Animal Rights Activists" and therefore unfit to serve, is an insult to the nominees' integrity and fairness, neither of which the breeders had specifically vetted. The use of the term "Animal Rights Extremists" has been recurrently used by a small (and disappearing) subgroup of breeders who use this term to frighten legislators, even going so far as to imply links to truly dangerous groups such as the Earth Liberation Front. However, if passing laws merely to protect birds in the same way that dogs and cats are protected by law, makes one an "Animal Rights Activist"—if trying to give them some relief from the outrages perpetrated upon them at Pierce County bird farms (as detailed previously on this website), indicates the same—then I confess that I must, indeed, be (proudly) an Animal Rights "Extremist". I recall, therein, that Abraham Lincoln himself said that "I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of the whole human being." Of course, at the time, these views, as well as Lincoln's views on slavery, were viewed with scorn by many.

Whose partiality?

A single example suffices to demonstrate the partiality of the breeders in eschewing knowledge and professionalism in the interests of their own benefit. County Executive Ladenburg's nominees included Dr. Erik Stauber, DVM, PhD, to fill the position for "representative from Washington State University Avian Health Lab (Department of Veterinarian Medicine". Dr. Stauber is Professor at Washington State University and WSU Faculty Member of the Year. He is "known throughout the Pacific Northwest and internationally for his devotion to zoological medicine.... Dr. Stauber has trained some 2,500 veterinary students over the years as head of WSU's Zoological Animal Services section of the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital and developed the region's most definitive wildlife and raptor care and rehabilitation service" [WSU site, here»]. Surely, the Council and breeders would be delighted to have such an erudite person—who shows no evidence of being a 'radical fanatic'—in the AAC. Instead, the breeders want the services Dr. Singh Dillon, who has no degree from this country. Furthermore, Dhillon had previously told me by telephone that he did not want to become involved in the furor over Scudder Parrot Depot, because he needed to take his students from Washington State University there for teaching. Therefore, he said, there was a conflict of interest since he did not want to get the breeder community against him. This admission suggests that Dr. Dhillon, while having years of experience, might well be constrained from expressing views freely and impartially.

The Council

As for the Council, Muri and Lee had once again stonewalled, if not squelched, the possibility of taking the national lead—and a pro-active stance—in this matter, despite their protestations to the opposite. As the saying goes, one cannot reason with an unreasonable person. However, the "democratic" process in Pierce County reached a new low at this meeting, when only 4 Councilmembers deigned to attend the meeting, thereby necessitating a unanimous vote to pass the resolution—and two of those four members had long ago shown their hands to oppose meaningful reform. It is apparent that no matter what the composition of the final Commission turns out to be, they will not be empowered to achieve anything constructive for birds—only to protect the breeders. I offer my congratulations to Muri and Lee for their superbly crafted political victory, albeit an ethically-dubious one. And to the breeder contingent for a slick "Swift Boat" program of disinformation, rationalization, and obstruction that extended even to this last meeting.

It is more dismaying that Ms. Gelman (once a self-proclaimed espouser of reform and proponent of the initial Ordinance) seems to have lapsed into either moral stupor or kow-towing to Muri—a statement which I can make knowing that in considering the list of applicants presented to her, "Councilmember Gelman has no comments. She will support whomever Dick Muri recommends." (Direct quote from comments appended to PCC Ordinance\Aviculture.List.d2.doc). Hopefully, voters will keep such passivity and ethical paralysis in mind, come re-election time.  For any animals who continue to be mistreated, the dissenting members of the Council will be called to answer for that elsewhere.

In keeping with these events, I decided after the meeting—with considerable sadness and disappointment—to withdraw from any other deliberations or actions concerning the reform of bird breeding in Pierce County, including the "Aviculture Advisory Committee". I am gratified to know that my withdrawal from the issue might cause delight among the "bird-loving" breeders who spoke at the meeting and who (in keeping with the majority of their other disinformation) attributed solely to me, the choice of the candidates proposed for the AAC. In contrast, other, unrelated matters involving the welfare of parrots, in which I am involved, will yield constructive results because the people I work with are informed—and they care about the mistreatment of defenseless creatures.

In contrast, there seems to be no rationale to continue to kick a dead horse. Perhaps a better analogy would be that, as a physician, I would not continue to try to provide cardio-pulmonary resuscitation to a patient who has been declared "deceased" since at least 2003. What this Council needs is a Heart transplant.

It is gratifying, on one hand, that so many people understand why the actions of Michael Vick upon dogs were reprehensible and barbaric. Almost everyone loves dogs, and even Pierce County has some basic laws to protect them. Sadly, however, the Pierce County Council—and some breeders—fail to see (or at least admit) that the sentience, and arguably even greater intelligence of parrots, makes the mistreatment of these birds (including those at some Pierce County bird mills) an equally egregious crime against Nature.

In his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, Hunter S. Thompson describes a loss of innocence and optimism which turned to cynicism around the counter-culture movement in the late '60s. So too did the lack of compassion (defined in the dictionary as "a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it") among Council Members and certain breeders of Pierce County convert to cynicism any hope that either would forego personal self-interest and take the higher road when it comes to the welfare of breeder birds. Although that battle will continue to be waged by others, I feel sad to withdraw from this important matter because I am not wont to abandon the welfare of the innocent and vulnerable into the hands of the uncaring and uninformed. The birds simply deserve better, not only than Scudder's Parrot Depot and other bird mills, but than the Pierce County Council—whose political daggers are drawn, albeit hidden behind dulcet words.

Et tu, Brute?

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