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Thursday, April 18, 2013

To Jefferson City and Back

Today is a dark, rainy day. It has been raining all morning, which leaves the pens unusually dark, and Bow is a little less than happy. But yesterday was a beautiful day, and Bow got to spend most of it outside in the sunsine, while I made my way to Jefferson City and back again.

In the morning, it had started out foggy and then the fog cleared up, and I saw all the rolling hills with green grass, the blossoming fruit trees and the trim little farmhouses along the way. The Missouri Ozarks are beautiful country, and it's such a shame that anything like politics should ever mar them.

The Missouri State Capitol Building is a tourist attraction, and there were groups of school children with their teachers coming and leaving all the while I was there. I arrived a little early, but it was hard to find a parking spot anywhere close by, so I ended up walking down Madison Street. It got me to thinking about James Madison, who is an ancillary character in Theodosia and the Pirates.

Once at the Capitol Building, I decided to stop by and say hello to my representative in the Missouri House, Robert Ross. When I told his assistant, Gina Richardson, my name, she exclaimed: "That's who I thought you were! You wrote a book."

This surprised me so much, that for a moment I was speechless. I did not remember ever seeing her before, so I could not imagine how she knew that. While I had been in touch with my previous representative in the Missouri House, I had not actually had any sort of dealings yet with the office of Robert Ross, who is newly elected this term, which is why I thought I would make a point of saying hello. How did this woman know I had written a book?

Of course, I was actually holding a book I had written: When Sword Met Bow.  I was going to give it to the Senate Agriculture Committee when I gave my testimony.

"Well, yes, yes, I did," I said and showed her the book. But clearly this was not the book she meant. "I was just reading about you," she said. And she opened up a manila folder where she had a photocopy of a newspaper clipping about my  book signing at Texas County Museum of Art and History. She pointed to a picture of Lanie Frick, Suzie Blackburn and me, posing in front of Lanie's painting. "I thought it was really interesting to see the author, the artist and the model in the photo together," Gina said. I remembered posing for that picture, but I had never actually seen it until then. Gina told me that Representative Ross would be mailing me that clipping. Then she walked me up to the house floor, where Representative Ross was busy. He came by to speak to me briefly, and we exchanged a few words, but he had to get back to the floor, and I had to get to Senate Room One for the Ag Committee hearing.

The Agriculture committee was chaired by Senator Munzlinger and closely attended to by Senators Libla, and Parson. Senator Kiki Curls was there toward the end of the session and asked about large carnivore owners.

If I believed that the burning issue on everyone's mind on the Senate Agriculture Committee was non-human primates when I came in, then I learned otherwise rather quickly. Two other bills were discussed before SB149. The first was introduced by someone who wanted the Agriculture Department to develop a new website for Missouri farmers to sell their products online internationally, a sort of Craigslist. One of the senators asked him whether there wasn't already such a website, and he answered that indeed there was, but that it was outdated and obsolete, because it was not properly optimized for search engines these days. I was surprised that the subject of SEO would come up in an agriculture committee meeting. The sponsor of the bill also said that Google was not the top search engine globally. That honor falls to and now everything needs to be optimized for that engine. Senator Munzlinger was concerned about selling goods in Asia and not getting paid, but Senator Parson wanted to know if the current agriculture department website was obsolete now, how we could be sure that this proposed website would not be also obsolete in a couple of years.

The next item on the agenda was a bill to regulate the freshness of goose and duck eggs when sold in a regular establishment. Apparently, there already is such a law regulating the sale of chicken eggs, but a loophole had been left for other kinds of fowl in the interest of public safety.  Senator Munzlinger thought this was an "egg-cellent bill," but Senator Parson was concerned with how it might affect his Amish and Mennonite constituents who do in fact sell duck and goose eggs. A person from the Department of Agriculture was there to testify on behalf of the bill. He said it was a matter of public safety to make sure the eggs were stored at a low enough temperature.

At this point, I began to think about Willy Wonka and wondered if the public really had such trouble recognizing a bad egg that it needed protection from independent farmers. But nobody showed up to testify against the bill, and it was clear that -- unopposed as it was -- it was going to pass.

And then it was time to consider HB149. Senator Keaveny revealed that he was acting on behalf of the St. Louis Zoo and the Kansas City Zoo. He took great pains to distance himself from HSUS, although further testimony revealed that HSUS and those zoos had a financial connection.

And then testimony began starting with those who supported the bill, sometimes stultifying in its claims concerning safety and animal welfare. There was also a boast that the law does not discriminate in favor of the zoos -- that the same rules apply to all, and that the zoos are happy to submit to these restrictions like everybody else. But the first people to testify quickly put that in issue, since there is a requirement that no one who kept primates should breed, transfer or display them to the public, and yet clearly the zoos in order to operate, would have to engage in these activities. If the bill does not exempt them, it would put them out of business.

There are only five chimpanzee owners in the state of Missouri, one person testified. To subject them to the fees necessary to fund a regulating agency would be prohibitive. To tattoo or chip chimpanzees, some of whom are already fifty years old and are retirees from the zoos, would be inhumane and extremely cruel. Many people testifying against the bill said  that they were Missouri natives, had lived here all their lives and they opposed the bill. While they agree that not everyone should own primates, there is no need for this law, as those people who choose to go into primate ownership are very responsible and well informed. There were no ordinary people testifying on behalf of the bill. There were only employees of the zoos and of animal rights organizations.

When my turn came to testify, I decided not speak against the bill's effect on primates and owners, so much as to inform the committee about what it would do to the State of Missouri if it were passed. I told them that unlike many of the others who were Missourians born and bred, I was an outsider. I came to this state because I wanted to start an ape language research project, and Missouri was the best state to do it in, because there were no anti-primate laws. I came to Missouri because Bow was born in Missouri. I started a project that might be of help to autistic children who had trouble communicating. I needed to cross-foster Bow together with my own child, because if I did not do that, he would not be enculturated, and the experiment would fail. If it is now impossible to continue here, because the law is passed, then I will have to leave the state of Missouri. That means no more investment in the state, no more revenue from donors or volunteers or even tourists who come here because of Project Bow. We will be gone. And the state will be left holding the bag.

Senator Munzlinger wanted to know if I meant that I could not afford the fees. I agreed that I couldn't. But Senator Parson wanted to know something completely different. "You say you raised Bow with your child. Do you consider them the same?"

At first I thought he was talking about safety issues, and I tried to explain that when Bow was a baby he posed no risk to anyone, so it was okay to raise them together. By the time he turned five, I found it necessary to put him in the pens, which are very secure. But Senator Parson stopped me. That's not what he wanted to know. His concern was not safety. He wanted to make sure I wasn't claiming equal rights for Bow. He asked the question again: "Do you consider them the same?"

I shook my head. "No. They are not the same." He was satisfied. There were no more questions for me.

I met a lot of good people yesterday, some of whom belong to an organization called Animal Owners of America. Senator Parson made a comment during his questioning of one of the witnesses from the zoo that stuck in my mind. He distinguished animal welfare from animal rights. "We are all interested in animal welfare," he said. "Every farmer is interested in that."

When somebody wants to grant rights to a creature who cannot exercise those rights directly, you can be sure that the person is looking to gain power over that creature. That is the issue of animal rights versus animal welfare. And I think the Missouri Senate Agriculture Committee is pretty clear about that difference. I think it's going to be okay.

As I was leaving, after I said goodbye to all my primate supporting friends, one of the animal rights activist called after me to say she appreciated the research I was doing. "Thanks!" I said.

I got home too late to take Sword and her friend to their regular music lesson, but their teacher Jill Dabney came over to my house instead, and I could hear the strains of The Star Spangled Banner being played at Sword's piano as I came in.

As for Bow, he had had a great day with Lawrence. His only complaint: he didn't like the peas he was served at lunch. He refused to eat them. When Lawrence asked him why, Bow spelled: "The peas are rotten."

The peas were not rotten. Bow just likes to complain sometimes. We had the peas for lunch today -- both of us. Bow ate his peas, but for some reason wouldn't eat the pickles.

Last night, after I put Bow to bed, I was so grateful to be home that I appreciated my little corner of the world even more. I hope I don't have to leave Missouri. I've got a really nice place here!

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