- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - House pets, mountain lions and black-tailed prairie dogs have found a powerful advocate in Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Chambers has introduced legislation this year to protect dogs from neglectful owners and the prairie dogs from neighboring landowners - and he has chosen a mountain-lion hunting ban as his priority bill for the session.

The self-titled “Defender of the Downtrodden” is trying to undo many of the hunting- and animal-related bills that were approved in the Legislature during the four years when term limits forced him from office. Chambers returned to the Legislature last year.

“I don’t elevate animals above human beings, but human beings do far more harm to animals than animals do to them,” Chambers said in an interview last week. “In Nebraska, cattle are an invasive species. Ranchers and others want to kill off all the other animals to make it convenient for their livestock. But they upset the ecosystem by so doing.”

Chambers, 76, is so attached to animals that he used to keep his assistant’s miniature poodle, Mollie Rae, in his Capitol office when lawmakers were in session. When the dog died in 2002, Chambers wrote an emotional, 3,000-word essay in the Omaha Star newspaper, describing her as “my best and truest friend.”

“As a loner without a lot of friends and no attachment to material things, I invested an extraordinary abundance of emotional capital in Mollie for 12 years,” he wrote at the time. “Others may have a spouse, children, religion - something to provide a distraction. Practically everything now reminds me of Mollie, painfully so, because she was part of practically everything that I did and thought.”

When a hearing room at the Capitol was named in his honor in 2008, Chambers attended at the ceremony with another poodle that his assistant, Cindy Grandberry, saved from an animal shelter.

Chambers once bought a boa constrictor because the snake was kept in a cramped glass terrarium, and he helped place a Burmese python at an East Coast zoo after its owner in Lincoln turned it over to an animal shelter.

Animal-welfare groups struggle to find close allies at the Capitol, and they credit Chambers for championing bills to clamp down on abuse, neglect and animal management practices. They pointed to one measure this year that would help restrict animal ownership for people convicted of animal cruelty.

“We really rely on him,” said Carol Wheeler, founder of Hearts United for Animals, a no-kill animal shelter near the southeast Nebraska city of Auburn. “It’s been very encouraging to work with him. He’s so wonderful, very helpful.”

Chambers introduced the legislation in response a 2013 neglect case involving a puppy mill in Malcolm. Lancaster County Judge Timothy Phillips described the operation as an “animal Auschwitz,” with dogs living in cages crusted with feces and urine. Water left outside for the dogs had frozen in the January winter.

Phillips voiced frustration that state law only allowed him to order a two-year ban on animal ownership by mill owner Julia Hudson, who was convicted of animal cruelty and neglect. Chambers‘ bill, which a legislative committee advanced on Thursday, would allow judges to impose a five-year ban for convicted animal owners.

The longtime state senator has also worked to block bills that he deems unnecessary or harmful to animals, forcing supporters to wait until term limits removed him from office in 2009. In his absence, lawmakers approved a ballot measure to enshrine fishing, hunting and trapping rights in the Nebraska constitution. Voters approved the amendment with nearly 77 percent support in the November election.

Chambers has vowed to repeal a state law passed in 2012 that gives counties the ability to manage black-tailed prairie dog populations. The law allows counties to create prairie-dog management programs, with the power to go onto a landowner’s property to eradicate the animals if owners refuse to act themselves. Ranchers view the prairie dogs as pests because their burrows can cause cattle injuries.

Chambers said prairie dogs are native to the area, and ranchers want to eliminate them for their convenience. He also took issue with provisions that allow county officials to enter private property without liability.

Chambers‘ positions aggravate many hunting and ranching groups, who argue that his views don’t reflect standard wildlife-management practices.

The mountain-lion bill would take control away from wildlife experts at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, who established a plan to regulate the population, said Scott Smathers, executive director of the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Foundation. Smathers said the Game and Parks Commission also has the power to suspend the hunting season if the mountain lion population plummets. State officials estimate that there are 22 mountain lions living in the Pine Ridge region in northwest Nebraska.

“I understand Sen. Chambers has some very passionate feelings about animal welfare and rights,” Smathers said. “I respect that. But he refuses to listen to science - proven science.”

Smathers said a refusal to allow mountain lion hunting would encourage a “shoot, shovel and shut up” mentality in which property owners kill them illegally and quietly dispose of the carcasses.

“That’s not positive for any species, two-legged or four-legged,” he said. “When there’s not a management-control system, we feel that you open the door to those issues - which, in the greater scheme, is far more harmful to the mountain lions.”

On the floor of the Legislature this year - usually during filibusters - Chambers quotes a favorite couplet from “Auguries of Innocence,” an 1803 poem by William Blake: “A robin redbreast in a cage/Puts all heaven in a rage.”

“I tell people that sums up my attitude - that birds were not meant to be caged,” Chambers said. “Elephants were not meant to stand on balls and be abused, to learn how to do tricks to amuse people in a circus. Lions and tigers should not be in cages, or put in circuses. All of those things are demeaning and degrading.”

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