EDITOR’S NOTE: During the past several days, I’ve been reporting about “Chasing Rabbits,” the name I’ve given to the case of the USDA assessing John and Judy Dollarhite a fine of $90,643 because the Nixa, Mo., couple sold more than $500 worth of rabbits in a calendar year. Along the way, I came across second-hand details of a similar, but continuous, effort being waged by the federal agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Today, I contacted Tim Sonefelt, a South Carolina magician, family entertainer and entrepreneur who broke the story three years ago in the Journal of KIDabra International, The Association of Family and Kid Show Performers, and obtained his permission to reprint it below in much the same fashion as it was published the first time.
By Tim Sonefelt, Guest Blogger
What happens when your photo is taken for the newspaper with your fluffy little bunny rabbit? Great publicity, right? Well, not if a U.S Department of Agriculture agent buys a copy of that paper! Enter the Rabbit Police!
Yes, you read correctly, the RABBIT POLICE, and the above story is how my buddy Gary Maurer in Hilton Head Island, S.C., was “busted” in the summer of 2006!
Gary is a full-time performer working heavily during the tourist season at numerous resort areas and tourist attractions on the island. One day, the local newspaper showed up at the show and took some photos to accompany a short blurb about the tourist area. The photo that ran included one of Gary’s beautiful Angora Rabbits.
Imagine Gary’s surprise when, a couple of weeks later, a field inspector from the USDA contacted him explaining that he needed to have a license to use the rabbits in his show. He was so surprised, in fact, that he though it was a joke! He was quickly informed it was indeed no joke.
They made arrangements for the inspector to make the three-hour trek from Columbia, S.C., to Hilton Head and Gary went through the process to become licensed.
“She was very polite and helpful in explaining everything. She also seemed to understand the lunacy of the whole thing. At the same time, I guess she has a job to do,” said Maurer. “She also asked me if I knew other magicians who used rabbits. I told her she’d have to find that out for herself!”
Gary said she also informed him that she knew about SCAM, South Carolina’s annual meeting of magicians and had plans to show up there. As of yet, we’ve not had an opportunity to tar and feather anyone from the USDA!
One instance could be an isolated case. Enter Nick Propst from Columbia.
Nick is a weekend warrior in Columbia. He’s proficient in kids and family shows and does his fair share of events in the area, ranging from churches to birthday parties. Nick also has a few rabbits in his arsenal of props.
Nick was at work one day when he received a call from his wife. Seemed she was a little unnerved. Some lady had rang their doorbell. When his wife answered, the unidentified lady asked for “Nick the Magician.” Nick’s wife told her that he wasn’t home, thinking it odd that a prospective customer would come to their home. The conversation subsided, and the door was closed.
Then, the still-unidentified lady sat down on their front porch and started writing. In a few minutes, she rang the bell again. When Nick’s wife answered the door, she was handed a note telling them she was with the USDA and that he’d need a license for his rabbits. Seems she’d found him by searching the internet and discovering his web site.
“Nobody knows about my web site except my family!” Nick said. “Not a great business move, I know. The point is the site is not ‘out there.’”
Mrs. Propst agreed to give Nick the note, and the door was again closed. Mrs. Propst was about to leave. When she entered their garage from their house, she saw a lady with her hands pressed against the glass of their outer garage door. The USDA “rabbit lady” was peering into their garage! If that’s not creepy enough, she also made herself at home and browsed around their yard before leaving. (Hum “The Twilight Zone” theme song here!)
This happened to Nick in August of 2007. Just before I got word from him that this had happened, I had done a week of library shows in Columbia (the S.C. Rabbit Police’s apparent headquarters). Some of the libraries had put my name on the marquee. My name in lights . . . sort of. Three of the four bulbs were burned out! I arrived back home on Friday evening after a long week away and found the voice mail light flashing. When I listened to the messages, I too had received a call from the USDA “Rabbit Police.”
It seems that the field inspector noticed my name on the sign as she was passing by. She stopped in and asked what time my show was. Thankfully, she had missed me by one day. Otherwise, we may have had a face-to-face encounter! She had asked the librarian (whom I know quite well after working for her all these years) if I had used a rabbit. She said, “NOT THIS YEAR!!” Gee thanks! I dismissed the call and deleted the message, since I don’t have a rabbit.
Next I checked my email. Lo and behold there was an email from her. This rabbit lady really does her homework. I think she needs a hobby! So, since I have an opportunity to start a dialogue with her without talking on the phone, I decide to ask her a few questions. My first one was, “When did the government find yet another way to interfere with small businesses?”
Yes, I REALLY asked her that. I also asked if I RENTED my rabbit, who had to have the license – the owner or the person doing the show? She responded, saying that the person doing the show has to have the license. She was VERY nice in her response contrary to my sarcasm.
I called Mark Daniel, our chief cook and bottle washer, and told him I wanted to post this on the KIDabra Discussion Board. It was literally days before the convention. After some discussion, we decided that it was best to share this information after the conference, once we knew more about it. I agreed to talk to several people and write a ‘fair and balanced’ (for all you Fox News folks) report.
Just a few weeks ago, Mark called and asked me to write this as an article rather than a post on the board, because he’d heard of yet another instance of the Rabbit Police striking in another state! He put me onto the trail of Brad Machette, one of the busiest fair and festival workers on the East Coast. Before I had a chance to call Brad to interview him, Mark called back and said, “You’ve got to talk to Marty Hahne of Dazzling Magic, too. He has an incredible story.” Since I have so much free time, I called both of them.
First, Brad’s bust: While working an agricultural fair in North Carolina, Brad discovered an issue which required local veterinarians to examine his livestock which include a rabbit and a chicken. Yes, Brad uses a chicken. We won’t get too deep in this issue other than to say if you are in North Carolina (and possibly other states) and use livestock that is handled or petted by the public (i.e. the people watching your show), you have to have a hand-washing station within sight of where you display the animals.
Brad didn’t have a hand-washing station. So, being the professional he is, Brad improvised and made what he called the “Redneck Handwashing Station.” He even called it that in his show.
The regulation required Brad to actually stop his show at the “point of petting” for he and the audience member to go over to the Redneck Handwashing Station to wash their hands. This improvised sanitation facility consisted of a few bales of hay, a longneck garden sprayer, a garden hose, a plastic container, soap and paper towels. Before you ask, no, hand sanitizer is not an acceptable substitute.
After Brad thought he’d satisfied all the regulations, along came the RP (Rabbit Police), N.C. Division!
They informed Brad of the law and told him they could have fined him on the spot for not having a license, even if he didn’t know about it. I’d guess that comes down to the “ignorance of the law is no excuse” clause. As I understand the law, you cannot use your rabbit legally even after you’ve applied for the license until you actually receive the documents, which have to be with you at all times.
Fortunately for Brad, they inspected and licensed him “on the spot” and gave him his license number even though he didn’t physically have his license. Interestingly enough, Brad was told his rabbit had to have at least as much off stage time as it did on stage time. Now THAT’S funny. Apparently, there is a rabbit union out there as well!
Marty’s story dates back to the summer of 2005 and has some really interesting moments in it. If you know Marty, you realize he has a very lively sense of humor. Keep that in mind as we proceed.
Marty was busted at a library show. He was working a library system he’d never worked before. He was all set up for his show, rabbit loaded and just about ready to start. Suddenly, the librarian came to him and said, “Marty, I need to see you in my office immediately” with a look of dread in her eyes. Marty couldn’t possibly imagine what was wrong.
Once they got in to her office, she informed him that there was an inspector from the USDA in the audience and that she would give him trouble about his rabbit. Marty, being quick on his feet, replied, “What rabbit?” “Exactly,” said the librarian, “Let’s hide him in my office until she leaves!” Sounded like a good plan.
Marty does the show, the whole thing, while scoping out the audience trying to figure out which person was the inspector. Then he spotted her. A burly-looking lady wearing boots, jeans and a denim shirt. He smoothly omitted the rabbit routine, and the show went fine. Afterwards, several moms were asking about his shows for schools, birthday parties, etc. Then, suddenly, the conversation was halted by a badge being shoved into the mix.
“I’m with the USDA, and I need to see the permit for your rabbit,” she said.
“There wasn’t a rabbit in the show,” Marty replied.
“I know, but there’s a rabbit with you in this photo from the show yesterday!” she countered. I forgot to mention that this was Marty’s second day of shows for this system.
Marty was able to put her off until she could come to his home for a proper inspection. Figuring he’d appeased the inspector, he planned on using his rabbit for the remainder of the shows. Upon getting to the second show that day, however, the librarian told him that she’d heard of the problems his rabbit had caused. Word traveled fast thanks to email! Every other librarian in the system — and even the entire county — had heard about the “problem” Marty’s rabbit had caused.
Finally, it was time for the inspection at the Hahne’s home. Marty decided to ask some questions.
“My friend has a snake,” he said. The inspector quickly told him they don’t regulate snakes.
“No,” Marty said, “I mean he feeds his snake rabbits. He breaks their necks and drops them in the cage for the snake’s food. Does he have to have a permit for that?” Again, she told him there’s no regulation for that.
“So I could break my rabbit’s neck and feed him to my friend’s snake and I wouldn’t need a license?” Marty asked.
“Correct,” she said, “But you need a license to use him in your magic show.”
Within an hour after the incident at the library, librarians at the other nine libraries in the system had heard what happened. By the next morning, the lady had emailed every library in the state of Missouri — close to 700 libraries! She informed everyone that Marty could cause problems because of his rabbit!
Who says there’s no such thing as bad press? After some talking, Marty convinced the librarian who caused the damage that an apology email to the entire state would be a good idea. Fortunately, she agreed!
They proceed to examine Marty’s “rabbit habitat.” The inspector sees his travel cage.
“You don’t have any ‘live animal’ stickers on your carry cages,” she said. “That’s a citation!”
Yikes! That sounds serious. Marty inquired and, according to the regulation, you must have a sticker that says “Live Animals” along with an arrow pointing upward on the travel cages. Marty asked why? The answer was that, in case he was in an accident, the rescue personnel (the Rabbit Rescue Team, I suppose) would know how to pick up the carrier.
“I figure most people would just pick it up by the handle,” Marty replied. It was at this point the inspector showed Marty the clause in her book that says verbal abuse of an inspector is a felony punishable by up to one year in prison. Ooops!
By now, you see the irony in all this. More on the technical aspects of this law later . . . on with Marty’s story.
You see, after you’re licensed, you can be inspected at random once per year. They can show up unannounced. Marty was in his office one day and saw the inspector’s vehicle pull up. He quickly closed the blinds, deciding to pretend he wasn’t at home today. If she can show up unannounced, he can be “not home.” There was a slight problem though – his front door was open with only the screen door being closed.
She rang the bell. The dog ran to the door barking like usual, but Marty stayed quiet. She knocked, but Marty stayed quiet. Then he realized his van was backed into the driveway.
She rang again, then knocked again, but Marty stayed quiet. Then his phone rang. The answering machine picked up. It was the inspector! The message she left said, “Hi Marty, this is Jane Doe with the USDA. I came by to do your inspection and your door was open. I knocked but no one came. Then I noticed there is a van backed into your drive. I think someone has broken into your house and is loading up your belongings in their van. Call me. Oh, by the way, did you get those stickers I sent you?”
By the way, Marty did get stickers – 200 of them! When he asked why, he was told that they are required to hire “at risk” workers to man the administrative offices in Colorado, and they sent two packs of 100 each instead of just two stickers. Our tax dollars hard at work. Marty may have these stickers for sale at his booth at the next convention!
Before we get into the law, here are a couple of positive things that come out of being licensed.
First, you are breaking a federal law by using your rabbit in your show without a license. You can probably “play dumb” if an inspector shows up at your show (or your house), but be warned that they can fine you on your initial offense.
Second, on a positive note, if you are harassed by an animal rights activist (PETA, etc.), you have an answer to stop them in their tracks. Gary Maurer had that happen. Here’s what he suggested. Tell them that you are licensed by the USDA to use the rabbits in your show. If they have any questions or concerns, they should contact the USDA. Then show them your license. You should have it with you at all times.
So what exactly is this law? It is the Animal Welfare Act. It was passed by Congress in 1966. Yes, it’s been on the books that long.
It protects animals not raised for food or fiber. We are considered Class C Exhibitors under the Act. An annual license ranges from $30 to $300, depending upon the number of regulated animals held. There is also a $10 application fee. To be in compliance, one must submit to annual inspection and maintain a current license and keep records from your veternarian on the health of your rabbit.
The inspectors are not interested in the props we put the rabbits into. They are only interested in the facilities or practices we use to care for the animals.
Since this law has been around for so long, why all the recent interest? I asked my regional representative, Lisa K MacElderry. Here’s part of her response:
I’ve been doing this job since 1993 and our Agency has undergone 180 degree changes in many ways. When I started, we were so understaffed (only 64 field inspectors nationwide). My training in AC (Animal Care) was one week in the office and two in the field.
The USDA Animal Care force was divided among 5 sectors nationwide and there was little communication or continuity between how things were done.
Starting around 1997, the agency started consolidating, going to 3 Region, then the current 2. We started having national training meetings, regional meetings, and mini-meetings of supervisors groups. Communication between regions and headquarters greatly expanded. The goal was to put everyone on the same page, getting all inspectors to inspect the same way. We started getting work specific training such as elephant training, and marine mammal training.
Over this same time period, a coalition of animal interest groups (including AVMA, HSUS, and dozens of others) petitioned Congress for an increase in funding for us. A stagnant budget was the reason we had not been able to have work meetings and were understaffed. Slowly over the last 15 years, we’ve increased to 100 field inspectors. Many animal groups say this is still not enough, especially when we start regulating birds one day About 4 years ago, I found I had time to inspect all of my assigned facilities and time to look for unlicensed activity. In the first year, I found and had licensed multiple petting zoos.
“Parent” magazines is where I’ve found most of the animal exhibitors here in SC. My first magician in this state (Gary Maurer) got licensed after my co-worker from out of state visited her parents here and saw his rabbits in a local paper.
So, there is some info from the “horse’s mouth.” Horses, by the way, are the only mammals exempt from this law.
This law is enforced by the regional offices of the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS). To get the full legal requirements for businesses regulated by the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, contact your local office by visiting http://www.aphis.usda.gov/.
To book Tim for an event, click here or on the graphic below.
UPDATE 5/26/11 at 7:56 a.m. Central: Cross-posted at Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com.
UPDATE 5/26/11 at 10:26 a.m. Central: “I was shocked talking to a performer friend of mine in Texas today,” wrote KIDabra’s Mark Daniel in an update he sent to me late Wednesday night after reading the post above. “He told me he was fined last Summer by a USDA agent that surprised he and his rabbit at a private event they were performing at with a first time fine of $500.00. He had never seen the lady before and she told him to pay up, then get licensed. He paid the fine and then got rid of his rabbit. A bit heavy handed I think!”
UPDATE 6/3/11 at 11:16 a.m. Central: Magician Provides Update on USDA ‘Rabbit Police’
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