By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Wild animals face a chilling multitude of threats. At a time when so many are vulnerable to the unprecedented impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and ongoing human encroachment on shrinking habitats, imperiled animals continue to be killed for nothing more than a trophy, a prize, a pelt or a trinket. Others suffer at the hands of traffickers and breeders who want to lock them in cages for entertainment.
We are steadfast in our work to end cruelties toward wildlife, from taking action to crack down on trophy hunting to promoting coexistence with our wild neighbors. Our work in 2023 spanned from rescuing and offering sanctuary to wild animals in peril to influencing shifts in national and international policy. Every wild animal saved from cruelty becomes an ambassador for the humane world we are trying to create. Here are just some of the practices and policies we shaped in 2023 that spell significant progress for wild animals.
Protecting wild animals from cruelty
- Across the U.S., we fight against wildlife killing contests, which are gruesome organized events in which participants compete for cash and prizes to kill the most, the largest or even the smallest native wild animals. This year, thanks in large part to our advocacy, Oregon banned these grisly contests, and the New York legislature passed similar legislation earlier this year that awaits the governor’s signature.
- We successfully fought back multiple attempts to open a trophy hunting season on Connecticut’s bears and to mandate the trophy hunting and trapping of Minnesota’s wolves. We also thwarted efforts to remove protections for cougars in Oregon.
- We continue to expose illicit ivory sales throughout local markets to create momentum for statewide legislation.
- We obtained a positive initial finding on our petition to list hippos under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, securing the first step toward legal protections for a species threatened by illegal trade. We also settled a lawsuit we filed seeking to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take long-overdue action on our petition to increase protections for African leopards under the ESA.
- Since the passage of the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in 2022, we have been working to ensure that the enforcement rule promulgated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in line with the legislation.
- In Canada, we worked closely with the government to achieve a ban on the trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn , including the import of hunting trophies containing these parts.
- In South Africa, we challenged the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment over its allegedly unlawful decision to permit the trophy hunting and export of 10 leopards, 150 elephants and 10 black rhinos. In a win for animals, we successfully maintained the 2022 court-ordered interim suspension on the permitting of the hunting and export of these three species through 2023. We expect it to remain unlawful to trophy hunt and export leopards, elephants and black rhinos in South Africa for the duration of our lawsuit, which is scheduled to proceed in 2024.
- In Belgium, the Humane Society International-backed bill to ban the import of hunting trophies from certain species, such as the hippopotamus, rhinoceros, African elephant, lion and polar bear, was advanced by the Belgium Federal Ministry of Climate, Environment and Sustainable Development through the Council of Ministers. We expect the bill to move through the final stages of the legislative process in 2024 to become law.
Preventing conflict and improving coexistence
So much cruelty to wildlife can be prevented if communities just have the tools and knowledge they need to respond more effectively and humanely to conflicts with wildlife. In 2023, we worked to identify, advance and implement humane and effective nonlethal solutions to address human-wildlife interactions.
- In the U.S., we conducted trainings in humane wildlife conflict resolution techniques and approaches for more than 1,300 animal care, animal control and wildlife professionals from more than 600 agencies and organizations.
- One hundred agencies and organizations signed our Wild Neighbors pledge, committing to respond to the public’s wildlife interactions and conflicts with more effective and humane approaches.
- We made promising advances in our field research on humane population management for deer that could reduce costs and improve the safety of a fertility control method. Additionally, we advanced understanding of planting strategies designed to reduce conflicts with deer.
- In approaches to nonlethal prairie dog management, we trained 82 agencies, individuals and organizations. Our prairie dog advocacy work also won increased protected acreage for prairie dog colonies; now 16,000 acres in our National Grasslands are protected. We also finalized a multiyear, multiagency and multiorganization collaborative research project that helps authorities identify ideal places to protect prairie dog ecosystems in the U.S., now and in future climate scenarios.
- In South Africa, we added more than 100 additional elephants to our African elephant immunocontraception program and deployed three additional satellite tracking collars for remote human-elephant conflict mitigation and monitoring.
- In Latin America, our teams hosted trainings and outreach events in Costa Rica and El Salvador on how to combat wildlife trafficking and promote human-wildlife coexistence. We trained nearly 600 law enforcement officers on veterinarian forensics techniques to better investigate and prosecute crimes against animals, like those seen in the illegal wildlife trade.
- In Viet Nam, we held a workshop on our four-year project working with provincial authorities and experts to monitor wild elephants and conflict incidents in Dong Nai province, where we announced the project’s success in nearly doubling the estimated population in the project area over the previous estimate.
Defending wild animals kept in captivity
Tens of thousands of wild animals continue to languish in captivity where they are used as commodities and photo props in roadside zoos, circuses and public contact experiences. But we are fighting to ensure these archaic practices are reaching a tipping point. We celebrated when, in September, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus kicked off a nationwide circus tour that won’t use a single animal. In 2023, we continued to put pressure on industries where captive wild animals still suffer to ensure stronger protections for them, with the ultimate aim to end the use of animals for cheap thrills, wildlife selfies and entertainment once and for all.
- We led the successful effort to ban public contact with nonhuman primates and bears in Illinois. We are taking the lead on bills to end the use of wild animals in traveling acts in New York and Massachusetts. In Pennsylvania, we have spearheaded legislation to reinstate a statewide prohibition on public contact with most wild animals. In smaller localities, we are supporting advocates across the U.S. working to pass similar bans.
- We fought to maintain hard-won protections for captive wild animals by beating back an attempt in Oklahoma to exempt elephant trainers who use bullhooks and other cruel training devices from the state’s cruelty statute, and by opposing efforts in Virginia and Wisconsin to remove protections for wild animals held in roadside zoos.
- Following passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act in 2022, we worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the accredited wild animal sanctuary community to support strong regulations and robust enforcement of this law, which was a decade in the making.
- At the U.S. federal level, we worked with lawmakers to introduce into Congress the Better Collaboration, Accountability, and Regulatory Enforcement (CARE) For Animals Act, a bill that gives the U.S. Department of Justice an expanded toolkit to collaborate more effectively with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. This collaboration and unified effort would enable the DOJ to step in more quickly to end unnecessary animal suffering in licensed facilities, such as circuses and roadside zoos.
- In comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we advocated terminating the capture and importation of wild African elephants for use in U.S. zoos. And we urged the USDA to end public contact with wild animals and to provide adequate enrichment to wild animals held captive in roadside zoos and other facilities.
- In comments to South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment and the Ministerial Lion Task Force Team, we advocated for the closure of the captive lion breeding industry and all captive lion interaction activities. We called for an urgent moratorium on all breeding at existing facilities and issuing of permits for new facilities.
The wrongs done to wild animals vary widely, so it is essential that our work rises to the occasion, dexterously working to eradicate cruelty wherever it is found, from the scope of a trophy hunter’s gun to the dark, cramped cages of a roadside zoo. None of this progress over the past year could have been possible without the dedication of our teams and supporters in making the humane world at the center of our vision a reality. On behalf of the countless wild animals spared from cruelty because of this work, we thank you.
Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.