Fight over ivory to continue in Connecticut

By Kevin Zimmerman

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See you again next year.

That’s the takeaway from the failure of an anti-ivory bill to pass during the latest state legislative session. Connecticut antiques dealers are happy and animal rights activists are disappointed. And while there is talk of working together to shift focus from the owning and selling of ivory already in the state — and toward further supporting efforts against the ongoing poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia — such a move seems unlikely in the short run.

The legislation, HB5578, which sought to prohibit the sale and trade of ivory and rhinoceros horn in the state, was not called for a vote in the legislature as it focused instead on passing the budget. Whether the bill — similar to one that was tabled during the 2015 session — would have passed had lawmakers not run out of time remains debatable.

“We are very disappointed — but we will be back,” declared Annie Hornish, a former state representative who is now the Connecticut director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which led the lobbying effort to get the bill passed. “This issue is not going away.”

“The Humane Society got very personal with its efforts to get the bill passed,” said Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, who added that his work against the bill was driven largely by antiques dealer constituents.

Bolinsky said that he discussed the bill at length with Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, assistant majority leader and chairman of the Environment Committee, about the matter. “He understands what I did in defense of the people of Connecticut,” Bolinsky said.

At issue was the bill’s provision to penalize anyone selling ivory in the state; an original proviso making mere possession of ivory illegal was removed. While an amendment was introduced to allow the selling of ivory and items containing less than 20 percent of ivory through July 2017, dealers still found the bill’s contents excessively punitive — even nonsensical.

“They were offering to exclude musical instruments (such as pianos with ivory keys), do this and that, but they couldn’t demonstrate how it was a real problem in Connecticut,” said Jack DeStories, who with his wife, Rosie, runs Fairfield Auctions in Monroe, which maintains it is the state’s largest antiques and fine art auctioneer. “And if your mother has a 50-year-old piano, she could be susceptible to a $3,000 fine and potential jail time. That’s how ridiculous they got.”

Joining the HSUS in supporting the measure were such animal rights organizations as Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, as well as the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.

Arguments such as DeStories’ “are what we encounter anytime this comes up,” said Born Free USA CEO Adam M. Roberts, whose organization estimates that 101 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory per day from 2012 to 2015. “The point is that once that (July ’17) grace period finishes, that’s the end of the ivory trade.”

That the bill specified that items containing less than 20 percent of ivory would not be considered illicit was of small comfort to those fighting the bill.

“We’re not talking about people bringing in elephant tusks to sell,” DeStories said. “We’ve been in business for almost 30 years and we’ve never seen that. But we have people come in on a weekly basis for free appraisals, and they might have stuff from the 18th and 19th centuries that have some element of ivory, which was commonplace back then. It’s a part of Connecticut’s culture and history. So we tell them that it’s worth such and such now, while it’s still legal … but in the future?”

Many collectors specialize in scrimshaw and netsuke, miniature ivory sculptures invented in 17th-century Japan that were often used as fasteners for robes. “You outlaw that, and those people are stuck,” DeStories said. “It either becomes worthless or it compels them to sell it somewhere else — which is just perpetuating the problem. It drives up the price and makes it more attractive to some collectors.”

Hornish at the HSUS maintained that such arguments simply prove her point. “We want to kill the demand for ivory entirely,” she said. “Passing bills like 5578 makes it a lot easier for law enforcement to determine what they’re looking for, and is an important step towards eliminating the killing of elephants for their ivory.”

Bolinsky replied that persecuting people who own family heirlooms containing ivory is like busting small-time drug dealers rather than going after the large cartels. “We need to be spending more effort at the international level instead,” he said. “Stopping the ivory trade at its source — in Kenya, in Asia — is where we should be spending time and money.”

“If they spent a tenth of their energy internationally,” added DeStories, “it would all end tomorrow.”

Nevertheless, the state-by-state effort to ban ivory continues. Earlier this month, Hawaii’s senate voted unanimously to restrict the sale of ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products, joining New York, New Jersey and California — states where the ivory trade is much larger than in Connecticut. A bill similar to 5578 is pending before the Rhode Island legislature.

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