GUT PILE BLUES: About two weeks ago, nearly 900,000 Barbie dolls were recalled by the manufacturer because lead-based paint had been used to achieve the dolls’ perfectly uniform tan pigmentation. Lead, when sucked, renders the suckee permanently stupid. It’s a known fact. And to own a Barbie is to suck a Barbie. That, too, is a known fact. Naturally, the Barbies in question were manufactured in China. Because of this, there was considerable suspicion that America’s ultimate feminine icon had been enlisted in a subversive conspiracy to render us all imbeciles, thus paving the way for China’s worldwide domination. Or something like that. In this case, such fears no doubt helped American decision makers to do the right thing. Had it been left to the people calling the shots up in Sacramento, however, I’m betting the children of America-and perhaps a few adults-would still be sucking Barbie’s lead-lacquered toes.
The case in point involves what by all outward appearances should have been another warm and fuzzy feel-good bill, in this case, introduced by our own Assemblymember Pedro Nava. Early this year, Nava introduced something called AB 821, which would require big-game hunters to use non-lead-based bullets when shooting deer and coyotes in California’s sprawling condor country. It’s kind of a no-brainer.
Condors, which have been on the federal endangered species list since before the list was first assembled, eat only the carcasses of dead critters. They are nature’s undertakers. But if such carcasses-or the piles of guts that many hunters leave behind after dressing and cleaning their kill-contain lead fragments, then the condors stand a good chance of getting a bad case of lead poisoning. At certain concentrations, the lead paralyzes the condors’ digestive tract. Food goes in, but does not go out. When enough undigested matter gets bunched up in the condor’s middle, the undertakers become the undertaken. It’s not a pretty picture.
Once upon a time, Santa Barbara’s skies were practically lousy with condors flying overhead at altitudes of 12,000 feet and soaring at speeds reaching 65 miles per hour. Prehistoric creatures that shared the planet with saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths, condors boast the longest wingspan-nine-and-a-half feet-of any bird on the continent. They’re just freaky-cool.
But when it comes to mating and propagating the species, condors have proven a little too deliberate for their own good. It takes the male months to decide whether he wants to mate with a given female, but given that condors mate for life, that’s understandable. In the wild, condor couples produce about one egg every two years. That’s because being a condor ain’t as easy as it seems, and it takes the parents about 18 months to instill all the necessary survival skills and social finesse in their young.
Condor populations began plummeting about 100 years ago. As power lines went up, condors went down. As armed settlers moved in, condors moved out. By the mid ’80s, there were only 22 left in North America. Since then, their numbers have increased, but only due to a captive breeding program coupled with practically ’round-the-clock care and attention.
Since 1992, 137 condors have been released in California. Of those, only 72 are left. The number of chicks bred and hatched in the wild can still be counted on one hand. Many of the condors trying to make it lack the sort of parental preparation; as a result, they eat bottle tops and metal scraps, with lethal effects. For a while, they were fond of the antifreeze found in abandoned car radiators, also lethal. And then there are the lead fragments from bullets found in gut piles and animal carcasses. They are responsible for at least 12 condor deaths since 1997.
This year was the third time Nava has tried to get such a lead-ammo ban passed. The first time, he got beaten up so badly he withdrew it almost immediately. The second time, it got killed in committee. But this year, Nava’s got some serious juice. Not only is he buddies with Assembly Speaker Fabian N°±ez, but he also chairs the committee that doles out millions and billions in road repair funds and transportation dollars. This time around, Nava’s measure passed both the Assembly and the Senate with comfortable majorities. It now awaits the governor’s signature to become law. My advice is that neither Pedro nor the condors hold their breath for very long.
That’s because Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and at least 34 Sacramento Republicans have caved into the Chicken Little hysterics of the gun lobby and the ammo industry. In other words, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Say what you want, the NRA remains very much an 800-pound gorilla. Its lobbyists know how to reward friends and punish enemies, and when it comes to knowing what side you’re on, they draw an exceedingly clear line in the sand.
The NRA put AB 821 on the hit list early on, arguing the link between condor lead poisoning and ammo had never been scientifically established, that non-lead ammo was either nonexistent or too expensive, and that the whole thing was part of a backdoor plot to ban big-game hunting. When a recently appointed member of the California Fish and Game Commission-which exerts regulatory oversight of everything that swims, crawls, walks, or flies-came out strongly in favor of a lead-ammo ban, the NRA swooped in for the kill. That the commissioner in question, Judd Hanna, happens to be a certified red-blooded Republican, a rice farmer, and a former Vietnam War test pilot who rides a Harley made no difference.
Hanna amassed about 200 pages of research showing that an incontrovertible link between the lead poisoning in condors and lead-based ammo had been scientifically established. He shared his findings with his fellow commissioners, along with some passionately pointed remarks he’d written in the margins. NRA lobbyists seized upon Hanna’s editorial comments to argue he was too biased to render a fair and impartial decision. They persuaded 34 Republicans to write a letter to Schwarzenegger demanding he be removed. The governor obliged and Hanna was terminated before he completed the first year of his six-year term. Nava commented, “They just took him out and shot him. I hope they used a non-lead bullet.”
Fish and Game Commission President Richard Rogers, who also happens to be a Carpinteria resident, said variously that he “shocked and appalled,” “incensed,” and “saddened” by what happened to Hanna. It should be noted that neither Hanna, nor Rogers, nor any members of the Fish and Game Commission support Nava’s bill. They oppose it partly on jurisdictional grounds, contending that they, not the legislature, should have the first and last word when it comes to regulating what kind of ammo gets used. They also contend the bill is technically flawed. All non-lead ammo, they say, contains trace elements of lead; Nava’s bill, they claim, doesn’t allow even that much. Rogers said the commission will do a better job than Nava this November when it passes a lead-ammo ban of its own.
Naturally, Nava disputes all this. He said the commission has dragged its feet for three years while his legislative efforts were getting jammed by the NRA. Whatever problems that may be sufficiently minor in his bill, he said, can be fixed easily. And he argued the high-profile political assassination of Hanna puts any member of the commission on clear notice that if they cross the NRA, their days are numbered.
In taking out Hanna, the NRA proved it still carries a big bat. But it also shot itself in both feet. Had it gotten Arnold to quietly kill AB 821-citing the commission’s own opposition to the bill-no one but a few Audubon Society members and Nava would have raised a stink. But now, the story’s become front-page news. Even the Humane Society has jumped into the fray. Maybe as Kabuki theater it works, allowing Arnold to appear to kiss and make up with the Bloody Meat Camp of the Republican Party-with which he’s been at such odds-knowing that in two months, the commission will pass a lead-ammo ban anyway. In the meantime, never forget: Guns don’t kill people, Barbie dolls do.