November 19, 2009

A Batty Bill

XI. Thou Shalt Not Choose Plastic.

Washington city-watcher (and occasion grumbler) Gary Imhoff publishes a twice-weekly e-newsletter on politics and life in the District. In Wednesday’s issue, Imhoff criticizes councilmembers who, though rightly keeping out of citizens’ bedrooms by planning to legalize same-sex marriage next month, “are now working their way through every other room in our houses, looking for ways in which they can regulate whatever we do.”

Nationally, some leaders have declared sugar a sin and want to tax it.  Others want to ban incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescent lights (which, by the way, happen to contain mercury).

Locally, the city council has condemned (via the tax code) plastic grocery bags as the latest fashionable sin du jour, assuming that we shoppers will discard the bags into the sewers.

As if that weren’t enough, Imhoff accuses Councilmember Mary Cheh (D – Ward 3) of introducing legislation, the so-called Wildlife Protection Act of 2009 (Bill 18-498), to solve a problem that, as Imhoff asserts, doesn’t exist:

[The bill] requires household exterminators, or “wildlife control operators,” to be licensed in the District; to follow the regulations in the bill; to prove that each animal they trap and relocate or, as a last resort, kill, is causing actual damage or danger; and to have a written plan for relocation of trapped animals approved by the District government for each job they do.

But certainly regulation is worthwhile if it saves animals from suffering, right? Well, a good philosopher will always question the very premise. Imhoff writes:

[T]here is no evidence that exterminators are currently engaged in any unnecessary animal cruelty. The bill was written at the behest of, and with the cooperation of, the Washington Humane Society (WHS), but all that the WHS can provide in support of it is speculation about possible harms, and no evidence of real harms. [We] spoke with two representatives of the WHS today. They both said that a[n] exterminator could set a foothold trap, or a bear trap, carelessly and harm a child or a household pet.

All right, [we] asked, how many children in the District have been wounded by a bear trap in the last five years?

They didn’t know of any.

How many pets have been wounded by a foothold trap?

They didn’t know of any; they didn’t keep records of any instances.

But a careless exterminator could leave an animal in a trap for days, to die painfully. How many instances of that happening could the WHS document?

Well, none, but it could happen.

What about the provision that forbids moving, trapping, or killing bats nesting in a house for six months of every year? The WHS didn’t know anything about that, but I wonder exactly what the Health Department or the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or the Department of Housing thinks about the advisability and desirability of humans sharing their houses with bats.

From what we read, Ms. Cheh’s bill may cause more trouble than it solves. If a property owner discovers bats in the attic, “A wildlife control operator shall remove bats only by nonlethal exclusion, prior to hibernation, except when health department requires lethal removal.”

So if they’re hibernating, you’ll have to wait until they leave hibernation or until the Health Department sends a threatening notice.

While animal cruelty is certainly abhorrent, Ms. Cheh’s bill addresses a problem that we are not convinced exists in the first place: that pest exterminators are needlessly torturing pests or that wayward children are wandering into bear traps.

Exterminators are already accountable by civil law and the fear of liability suits. Exterminators are also likely to want to avoid the displeasure of customers who want swift catching and removal of pests as opposed to slow and painful removal.

We concede that cases will slip by, but in this instance Ms. Cheh exhibits a worrying belief that it is the role of the city council to legislate every potential or actual wrinkle out of modern life.

Fretting over bats is a luxury we’re sure that Ward 3 can afford, but we would rather see the council expend its legislative energy reducing the cruel and inhumane destruction of human life that occurs far too frequently in the rest of the city.

Categories: Taxation
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