Oklahoma’s House Wildlife Committee strayed from typical state wildlife issues Wednesday to address all manner of domesticated animals — including elephants.
Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, said he introduced his Endangered Ark Foundation Preservation Act as a preemptive measure against animal rights groups that might attack practices at a sanctuary for retired circus elephants in Hugo.
The D.R. and Isla Miller family established Endangered Ark in 1993 in the southeastern Oklahoma town, which has a long circus-related history. After more than 60 years working with the Asian elephants, they founded the ranch for educating the public about the endangered species, according to the foundation’s website.
The ranch has 11 Asian elephants, from a few years old to more than 60, and offers tours and opportunities for people to get up close to the elephants, according to its website. Managers of the foundation did not return a call on Wednesday.
Humphrey said his House Bill 2895 is necessary because animal rights activists have tried in other states to stop human contact with elephants by outlawing use of leads, stalls or prodding sticks designed to help handle the elephants in confined areas or for veterinary care.
“They don’t want you to use anything. No touching and no petting. … No anything,” he said.
Challenged on why the bill addresses only Asian elephants and not African elephants, Humphrey stumbled over the language but eventually agreed to drop the word “Asian” and make it all-inclusive.
Asian elephants, listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act and no longer imported to the country, have been the species traditionally used in circus acts. Many originated from herds in India, where the elephants had been domesticated as work animals for centuries.
African elephants, listed as threatened, are much less common in domesticated roles but more common in zoos. However, last year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned the export of African elephants from their wild habitats.
House Bill 2895 would mandate that “it shall not be considered cruelty to animals … for licensed operators of a nonprofit entity caring for elephants to practice free contact and protected contact.”
The bill defines free contact as “use of tools and techniques such as a guide and tether to help elephants cope with certain conditions” and protected contact as “contact between elephant and handler through a barrier such as a chute or an elephant restraint device.”
Challenged on the idea of passing a bill to stop something that may or may not happen, Humphrey said he’s generally not one to wait to see who might throw the first punch in a conflict.
“I’m not going to wait for them to smack me,” he said. “I’m going to get ahead of them.”
The bill passed through the committee on a 12-3 vote.
A bill to make “a rescue animal” the official Oklahoma state pet also jumped its first obstacle in passing through the committee on a 13-2 vote.
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said he has adopted two dogs from the Moore shelter. He said he recognized the need to bring awareness to all the different animals adopted through shelters statewide and decided to introduce House Bill 3971 this year.
He said even people who typically disagree with him on political issues like this idea. One told him, “We don’t agree on many things, but I love you for this one,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “Everyone thinks it’s great.”
He said the bill is timely because Moore and other cities are at a point where they must expand their shelters due to demand.
According to the Humane Society of the United States and state websites, Oklahoma would be the sixth to recognize shelter pets with its “rescue animal” designation, although the designations differ slightly state to state.
In Ohio and California, “a shelter pet” is the official state pet. In Georgia it’s the “adoptable dog,” but Illinois and Tennessee were more inclusive, with Illinois recognizing “shelter dogs and cats” and the Volunteer State went with “rescued dog or cat.”
McBride said he talked with people at the Moore Animal Shelter and that’s where the idea for “rescue animal” originated, because shelters around the state handle different critters.
“There are even horses that show up and adoption of mustangs,” McBride said. “People adopt all kinds of stuff, so that was my decision, to make it all rescue animals.”