Lawmakers in the House reworked and ultimately passed a Senate bill prohibiting possession or sale of items made from certain African animals after an emotional debate Wednesday night prompted opposition from both sides of the aisle.
The bill is intended to curb the trophy hunting of a handful of exotic animals known as the “Big Six,” which includes elephants, lions, leopards, giraffes and two kinds of rhinoceros. If the Senate adopts the House changes and the governor signs the bill, it would be a crime to possess, sell or transport in Connecticut the animals or items made from the animals.
Rep. Christine Palm, a Chester Democrat who is vice chair of the Environment Committee, said the legislation was inspired in part by the high-profile 2015 killing of a lion called Cecil.
“While that death was tragic and was noted world-round, I would ask all of my colleagues not to sentimentalize this bill,” Palm said. “This was one creature that we lost. There are about 650 African elephants killed and imported into this country each year. So what this bill does is galvanize that awareness into action here locally.”
But while there was a general opposition to trophy hunting among House lawmakers, many Democrats and Republicans had concerns that it would not be the trophy hunters who wound up in the crosshairs of the potential jail time and fines included in the bill.
“The bill is really targeting individuals that I don’t think anyone in this legislature intends to be targeting. It’s targeting individuals that, again, may have purchased a leopard skin jacket or inherited one or received it from a friend many, many years ago,” Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, said.
As passed by the Senate, the bill would have made possession of the banned items a class A misdemeanor for the first offense. That charge carries hefty fines and up to a year in prison. Further offenses could be considered class D felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.
It includes a number of exemptions for people who owned the products before the bill and obtained a permit from the state as well as circuses, zoos, museums, taxidermy services and film companies.
But the prescribed penalties and the expectation that the bill could result in more negative interactions between citizens and police worried many lawmakers. During the late-night debate, many House Democrats stood to speak against the bill.
“This might be funny and I’m not trying to be funny,” Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said as he took off his shoe, “but a police officer that has to determine what kind of leather I have on my shoe … can now penalize a person because he thinks that your shoe is an animal on this list.”
Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said that as a rule, he generally voted for bills to protect animals. But Tercyak said he had another rule: not to put additional felonies on the books. He said the bill seemed at odds with the legislature’s efforts earlier this session to make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to clear their records.
“What do we stand for, folks, if every time we make it easier to erase your record, we come up with a new way to arrest people?” Tercyak said. His comment received some applause from around the chamber, prompting a gentle rebuke from Rep. Kevin Ryan, who was standing at the dias.
Eventually, House leaders tabled the bill only to raise it again a few minutes later. This time, the chamber adopted an amendment proposed by Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford. The change made any first offense under the law an infraction unless the offender can claim in good faith they were unaware they had been violating a law.
The House adopted the amendment on a voice vote with no apparent opposition. The change will force the Senate to reconsider the issue if the bill is to become law. It will have significant competition with less than one week left in the legislative session. But the change eased passage in the House, which soon after voted 97 to 48 in favor of the bill. Palm called the compromise “a great moment for this chamber.”
Not everyone felt it adequately addressed the problems. Before the amendment, Rep. Andre Baker, D-Bridgeport, worried the law would punish people whose heritage traditionally involved owning the trophies as a way to maintain a connection with their ancestral cultures. Baker said he did not believe the amendment resolved the issue.
“The penalty is going to crucify them. I think we need to — I can’t support this bill, I think we need to pull it, we need to re-vamp it, we need to pull this penalty out because it’s going to hurt people,” Baker said.