Dan Morain

Opinion: On the trail of kangaroo legislation

Lobbyists from SeaWorld of San Diego brought exotic animals to the Capitol last week.
Lobbyists from SeaWorld of San Diego brought exotic animals to the Capitol last week. rbenton@sacbee.com

Before the unpleasantness with the FBI, Ron Calderon earned his reputation as a flexible senator who would, for example, occasionally champion animal rights, and then not.

Although he came to the defense of chickens by carrying bills cracking down on cock fighting, Calderon won legislative battles to lift a decades-old state ban on the importation of kangaroo parts. Adidas, which used kangaroo leather for soccer shoes, lobbied for Calderon’s measure and became one of his donors.

The legislative fix was temporary, however, and Calderon is fending off corruption charges unrelated to marsupials. If no one takes up the cause, California again will ban the sale of kangaroo skin starting Jan. 1, less than six months from now.

Although Adidas has stopped using kangaroo, the product remains important to Australia. The Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia retained Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a high-end law and lobbying firm. Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley raised the issue with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León in a meeting last month.

“The Australian government wishes to grow our strong economic ties by removing unnecessary trade barriers that are not grounded on science,” Beazley said in a statement. “A temporary solution has been in place for years and it is now time to adopt a permanent resolution.”

No new legislation has emerged. But this being budget season, Jennifer Fearing, the Humane Society of the United States lobbyist and kangaroo defender, has taken to buttonholing budget committee members urging that they resist using the budget process to extend Calderon’s bill.

Sometimes, coincidences happen. Last week, SeaWorld’s animal handlers came to town for a lobby day, and brought with them, of all creatures, kangaroos. Fearing bumped into the SeaWorld contingent outside the Capitol and said how delighted she’d be to see photos of the animals with legislators.

Soon thereafter, Fearing began tweeting oh-so-cute photos of the animals in lobby mode. In one, a roo smooches de León. For good measure, she sent one from 2014, in which a kangaroo elicits a smile from the decidedly uncuddly Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Everybody loves kangaroos,” Fearing tweeted, using a heart emoticon instead of the word “love.”

The tale began in 1970 and 1971 when then-Sen. Anthony C. Beilenson, a West Los Angeles liberal, sought to protect endangered species by carrying legislation making it a crime to import for sale parts of animals, among them polar bears, tigers, elephants and our friend the kangaroo. Ronald Reagan signed the measures into law.

The prohibition stayed buried deep in the California Penal Code until a British-based animal rights group, Vegetarians’ International Voice for Animals, sued Adidas for violating California law by selling kangaroo leather soccer shoes.

The legal issue was whether federal law pre-empted the state statute. Although justices passed no judgment on the wisdom of the ban, the California Supreme Court unanimously sided with the vegetarians, affirming the state’s power to ban kangaroo parts.

The decision prompted Calderon’s legislation in 2007 and 2010. As part of the legislative compromise, the Australian government agreed to report annually to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife about the status of kangaroos.

In its 2014 report, the Australian government said it authorized as many as 6 million non-endangered species of kangaroo to be killed, a 35 percent increase from the previous year because the population boomed since the end of the Australian drought.

“Kangaroos are highly fecund,” the report notes.

Although federal law doesn’t stop California from banning kangaroo parts, international treaties could be another matter. The Obama administration is negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other countries including Australia. Signatories evidently would agree to something called Investor-State Dispute Settlement.

Writing in Politico, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman warned that multinational corporations could sue federal, state or local jurisdictions claiming government actions harmed profits. If the corporations prevail, taxpayers could be on the hook.

A U.S. Trade Representative spokesman referred me to a U.S. Senate report that says “federal and state laws will prevail in the event of a conflict with a trade agreement.” But if Schneiderman is right, the dispute settlement process could have implications beyond kangaroos in California, which passes all manner of far-reaching environmental laws.

Check the news, and you’ll find stories like the one from the Courier Mail of Queensland, Australia: “They may look furry, cute and cuddly, but kangaroos are potential killers.” Evidently, you never know where kangaroos might be lurking down under.

On this continent, they or their remnants could turn up in strange places, say in an arcane budget trailer bill, or in legislation that will surface late some summer night as the Legislature wraps up for the year, or in the fine details of an international trade pact.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.