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Lawmaker seeks ban on awarding animals as carnival prizes

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PHOENIX – Saying it’s cruel to send a live goldfish, rabbit or turtle home as a carnival prize, a state lawmaker is out to ban the practice in Arizona.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R–Fountain Hills, said he proposed HB 2072 based on complaints received by his wife, Fountain Hills Mayor Linda Kavanagh, after a carnival visited last year.

“The problem was that many of the recipients were children,” Kavanagh said. “They would suddenly show up at home at 9 or 10 o’ clock at night with these animals and were totally ill-prepared to care for them.

“So that seems to set the animals up for abuse – people either not being able to care for them or letting them run loose.”

Kavanagh said the bill would close what he calls a loophole in a state law that prohibits giving away animals as prizes in lotteries and raffles but doesn’t explicitly address carnival games. It would apply to any contest, game or competition.

HB 2072 has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Ryan Huling, manager of college campaigns and outreach for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said his organization receives hundreds of calls per day from concerned parents and children who have been given animals under such circumstances.

Callers who want to keep the animals are advised how best to care for them, he said. Others are directed to reputable shelters.

“It’s just a recipe for disaster to give animals into the hands of people who are unable to care for them,” Huling said.

Kari Nienstedt, Arizona state manager for the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill would provide much-needed accountability measures for organizations that distribute the animals.

“The people who raise animals to sell or give away, including fish, have an ethical responsibility to see that they have a good home,” Nienstedt said. “People get swept up in the excitement of winning something without considering the responsibility of it. And what a lot of people don’t realize is those animals are neglected once the novelty has worn off.”

Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, which rescues abandoned reptiles and amphibians, said about 100 owners per year turn over turtles to his organization. But far more turtles wind up infesting ponds, lakes and streams, he said.

The red-eared slider, a species of Eastern water turtle that Johnson said is the most frequently distributed at carnivals, poses an especially serious threat here.

“They have a voracious appetite that competes with our native Sonoran mud turtle,” he said.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, applauded Kavanagh for introducing the bill and said environmental stress occurs whenever a non-native species is released.

“There’s only so much to eat, so if a native species is eating food, that’s less food available for the native species,” Bahr said.

Kavanagh said the responsibility for what becomes of pet prizes falls to the new owners too.

“If you can’t care for the animal and a fish dies because you don’t have the proper tank, or you can’t take care of the rabbit and it gets loose or you set it loose, there’s no justification for that,” he said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to animals.”