Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal has worked on many important issues in the state legislature-affordable housing, services for the elderly, women's rights-and now she's zeroing in on another: shark fins.
Last week, Rosenthal announced her co-sponsorship of a bill that would ban the sale and distribution of shark fins in New York State. The fins are most often used in a traditional Chinese dish, shark fin soup, that is known more for its prestige factor than its taste.
"The quest for shark fin so that restaurants can sell shark fin soup is something that is doing dramatic damage to our oceanic system," Rosenthal said in a recent interview. "I view this as an environmental bill as well as animal protection. It has major implications, killing the top predator."
Shark fin hunters often hack off the fins and throw the bleeding sharks back into the water to die. Rosenthal and her co-sponsors, Assembly members Grace Meng, who represents the largely Asian-American community of Flushing, Queens, and Alan Meisel of Brooklyn, hope to stem the demand for the expensive soup and thus the need to hunt sharks by making the fins unavailable legally in New York, where much of the East Coast's supply originates. (Shark finning has already been banned in West Coast states.)
For some people, animal rights might be considered a pet issue (pun intended) that has little to do with the day-to-day well-being of society. For Rosenthal, animal rights are an extension of a moral and advanced society, no less important than protecting other vulnerable segments of the population.
"She's really one of the legislators who gets it. She knows the link between animal cruelty and human violence," said Patrick Kwan, New York state director of the Humane Society of the United States, who has worked with Rosenthal on the shark fin bill as well as other animals rights measures and gave her the Society's State Legislator of the Year Award in 2009.
It was just that link that led Rosenthal to sponsor and pass her first animal-related bills, which make it possible to obtain an order of protection on behalf on an animal, in 2006. Rosenthal said that she had heard of too many cases where women were afraid to leave abusive spouses because there was no protection for the pets in the household.
"Often, the animal is the first target of the abuser," Rosenthal said. "[The law] is valuable in terms of predicting what could happen to the human and, of course, it's relevant in itself."
Rosenthal has passed legislation requiring any consumer product containing fur to be labeled, letting shoppers know if the fuzzy stuff lining their gloves is synthetic or came from an animal.
She also got a law passed that mandates public schools to inform students of their right to abstain from dissecting animals in biology classes and another that prohibits animal testing for cosmetics if other effective methods exist. This January, a bill she passed took effect that protects black bears from poaching. The law requires that all bear organs from New York be tagged to show they were legally obtained. And while it's still a contentious issue in New York City, Rosenthal continues to push to ban carriage horses.
It's tough for any lawmaker to get their bills noticed in the sea of legislation floating around Albany, but Rosenthal said she has earned a reputation as a serious animal crusader, and her success in that realm-as well as the attention that constituents give to animal issues-gets her colleagues' attention.
"Her compassion is only matched by her effectiveness," Kwan said. "She will push an issue and she will able to explain to other legislators why this makes sense."
To Rosenthal, her fight for animals is simply a matter of common sense.
"Animals mean a lot to many people, they're very important parts of their lives," she said. "It's not trivial to push animal bills; it's part of a larger outlook."
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