May 2016

Government Of the People, For the Animals

By Kris Sherman

It was a sobering scene.

Spread out on two tables at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., sat artifacts from the “extinction economy.”

An ashtray crafted from a rhinoceros foot. Glistening sea turtle skin boots. An elephant hide wallet. A leopard skin fur muff. A cheetah paw paperweight.

The list was long—and grisly. Rhino horns and elephant tusks, a taxidermied sea turtle, “medicines” made with rhino, tiger and pangolin parts, a baseball cap decorated with a tuft of lion fur.

Animal lovers could easily cry at this gruesome gathering of poached body parts. And that was exactly the point. Days before a crucial election, the display drew media attention to a landmark Washington state ballot initiative to ban the purchase, sale and distribution of products made from 10 endangered species.

The public was swayed. In a 70 percent landslide, more than 1 million people voted in favor of Initiative 1401 to protect elephants, rhinos, tigers, lions, cheetahs, leopards, pangolins, sharks, rays and sea turtles. The measure passed on 3 November 2015 in all 39 Washington counties, from the most liberal to the quite conservative.

“We’re grateful to the voters of Washington for supporting this critical piece of conservation law,” said Gary Geddes, director of zoological and environmental education for Metro Parks in Tacoma, Wash. “Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and the communities we serve care deeply about protecting these endangered animals and taking every step possible to protect them from extinction. We are hopeful that that our success can be repeated in other states across the nation.”

The initiative, which took effect in December, carries a range of penalties; the most egregious violations could result in a fine of up to $14,000 and up to five years in prison.

The passage of I-1401 resulted from the teamwork of four Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities in collaboration with animal welfare advocates, conservation organizations and a generous philanthropist. Geddes oversees Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville, Wash., which joined Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., to champion the measure.

It was a sweet victory. Other states had enacted stiff laws against trafficking ivory; none had passed a sweeping law protecting so many species.

A Case Study

But the passage of I-1401 also traveled a long and sometimes difficult path.Inspired by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants campaign, Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park went to the 2015 State Legislature, seeking passage of bills banning the sale of ivory and rhino horn in Washington. Leaders of all four facilities forcefully testified on behalf of the legislation. Enthusiastic youth volunteers from Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium carried small stuffed elephants and spoke passionately in its favor.

Though Senate Bill 5241 and House Bill 1131 had bipartisan support, they failed to advance past the hearings stage and died without a full vote in either chamber.

“There wasn’t a tremendous amount of grassroots support,” said State Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat who was one of nine sponsors of the Senate bill. “There just wasn’t any real oomph pushing it forward. And there was some very vocal opposition from antique dealers—and behind the scene, was the powerful gun lobby.”

Both groups complained the bills would strip them of their ability to sell and resell antiques made from ivory, including ivory-handled guns and knives. Though stinging, the February failure in the Legislature gave rise to the use of a powerful political process: an initiative of the people. Washington is one of just 24 states nationwide that allows citizens to put new laws to a vote by gathering signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

Vulcan, Inc., founded by philanthropist Paul G. Allen, also is committed to protecting endangered species. The company stepped up to join with the state’s four AZA members on an initiative campaign that widened the scope of the proposed law and broadened the coalition of those fighting for it.They quickly launched Initiative 1401 under the banner name of Save Animals Facing Extinction. The 15-page act was filed with the Secretary of State on 3 April, and within three months the campaign group gathered the necessary 246,372 signatures of registered voters to put it on the November ballot. In fact, the signature-gathering effort was so successful, nearly 349,000 names were submitted.

“Wildlife experts report that within the next decade or sooner, some of the planet’s most precious and endangered species may face a critical tipping point toward extinction,” Robert W. Davidson, president and chief executive officer of Seattle Aquarium, said when the campaign began. “Our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment compels us to strongly support Initiative Measure 1401. By strengthening protections against trafficking in products from these increasingly endangered animals, we can help save sharks, manta rays and sea turtles and protect ocean life.”

Building a Coalition

Having four AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in one state and “all speaking with one voice was incredibly important,” said Woodland Park Zoo Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager Kerston Swartz.

But a far larger network of advocates was needed, and Vulcan, Inc., was there to create it.

“I-1401 was a great case study, and I think it resulted in some really positive results, not only in protecting wildlife but also in strengthening the conservation community,” said Jared Axelrod, senior government affairs associate at Vulcan. “We built some coalitions and built some bridges where they didn’t exist before.”

“The zoo and aquarium community and some members of the animal welfare community don’t always see eye to eye on issues,” Axelrod said. “But stopping animal trafficking and saving endangered species really was an issue everyone could get behind.”

The Humane Society of the United States became one of the top contributors to the campaign, and the group’s chief executive officer appeared in a television ad on behalf of I-1401.

Ultimately, I-1401 received endorsements from a wide range of groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Conservation Northwest, Born Free USA, 96 Elephants, African Wildlife Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, Washington State Democrats, Mainstream Republicans of Washington, National Resources Defense Council, WildAid, Audubon Washington, Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Voters of Washington, Environmental Investigation Agency, SPCA International and the Hong Kong – Greater China Business Association of Washington.

Once the initiative qualified for the November ballot, members of the coalition fanned out across their respective regions, reaching out to media outlets for stories, to newspaper editorial boards for favorable editorials and to influential business and community leaders and elected officials. Screenings of Vulcan Productions’ heartrending documentary, “Racing Extinction,” created a massive call to action.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” said Seattle Aquarium Conservation Manager Mark Plunkett. “You have to make the phone calls. You have to meet and greet.”“You also have to think outside the box, because you probably have friendly people around you who want to help—if only you ask.”

Getting Buy-in Near and Far

Each AZA member in the group needed to follow different rules of engagement regarding the initiative. As government-run zoos, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park were restricted by state law governing expenditures of public funds as to how they might help the campaign. Both could produce fact sheets and answer questions about the initiative but not contribute money, hold rallies or distribute pro-initiative materials. The nonprofit Zoo Society, which supports Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium was, however, able to campaign and donate to the effort. The Northwest Trek Foundation also helped out. Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium, as nonprofits, were more freely able to campaign for the measure.

At Woodland Park Zoo, for example, Swartz gave presentations to zookeepers about I-1401, “and the next thing you know, there was a lot of buzz about it,” she said. “Keepers were incorporating it into their talks and wearing buttons that read, ‘Ask Me About 1401.’ It was a zoowide effort. It was really easy to get buy-in.”

Securing that kind of holistic support is key, said Seattle Aquarium’s Plunkett. In a facility where everyone is busy every day, it can be difficult to persuade people at first that they need to take on some added work. “Everyone is overloaded,” he said. “But once I took the time to inform my colleagues that this was a critical effort and could be a model for the nation, people grabbed it and embraced it. Our education staff came up with talks, our marketing staff helped with messaging and our webmaster was very enthusiastic.”

Recognizing that having other well-known zoos and aquariums also backing the initiative was important and, Woodland Park Zoo Acting President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Bohmke joined with Seattle Aquarium’s Davidson and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek’s Geddes in writing a letter asking for support.

“The goal of this measure,” the letter read in part, “is not only to do our part in saving these animals, but to break the demand cycle in our state and create a model for other states to do the same.”

AZA endorsed I-1401 in September. By Election Day, the initiative also was backed by Mystic Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Boise, BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, National Aquarium, Zoo New England representing Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society representing the Bronx Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Oregon Coast Aquarium.

And though it passed handily, the work of the I-1401 campaign is far from done. The law took effect in December, and members of the coalition are back at the Legislature this year, lobbying for adequate funds to allow the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife to enforce it. Seattle and Tacoma form the third largest port complex in the nation, with millions of tons of cargo coming through each year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized more than 50 tons of elephant products in the state since 2010. Shark fin soup is reportedly sold in Puget Sound-area restaurants.

All of the stakeholders say they would like the initiative to serve as a model for other states, but they also know that what was achieved in Washington—and how—isn’t easily transferable to all jurisdictions.

AZA Chief Operating Officer Jill Nicoll is hopeful that Washington’s success can be replicated. “But we have to understand that there are regional political and cultural differences,” she said. “You don’t change the message that saving endangered species is imperative, but you have to customize it based on your visitors, the politics of your area, the local culture. You take that message and tailor it to be impactful where you are.”

“What the opportunity is for us on a national level is to engage with the 180 million annual visitors that go to 230 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums,” she added. “For many zoos and aquariums, the mission is to inspire and educate and what those in Washington have done is inspire and educate and activate. The next opportunity for AZA and for wildlife conservation is to engage our visitors in a higher level of conservation action.”

Dr. Fred Koontz, Woodland Park Zoo vice president of field conservation, would agree with that observation.

“I-1401 establishes a model for citizens, legislators and leaders across the United States—and around the world—to end the demand that fuels the extinction of animals in the wild,” he said on election night.

“Other states now have the opportunity to build upon what Washington has started by achieving victories of their own,” he added. “In 2016, Oregon voters will be faced with a similar initiative, and when it passes, three major West Coast states will have laws banning the sales of endangered species products. With each victory, we’re one step closer to avoiding extinction.”

Kris Sherman is Communications Associate Manager at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and a retired reporter and editor at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.

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