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Pianos and Elephants Clash at Statehouse

Published in the Burlington Free Press on April 11, 2015

Written by April Burbank, Free Press Staff Writer

MONTPELIER – Activists are urging Vermonters to give up the option of selling anything that contains ivory.

A law banning ivory and rhinoceros horn sales would be worth the sacrifice, they say, to stop the slaughter, illegal poaching and imminent extinction of African elephants.

A House committee considered the ban this week, taking testimony from wildlife conservationists, middle school students, piano teachers — and the drummer for the band Phish.

"We know that if we don't put an absolute ban on the sale of ivory, that elephants will disappear. We know that," said Jonathan Fishman, the drummer, who called the bill a "no-brainer."

Several states already prohibit the sale of ivory. Supporters argue that state laws will cut down further on the mar­ket for ivory and the incentive for poaching.

"Federal laws cannot stop ivory from being sold within state borders," said Taegen Yardley, a student and elephant activist from Endeavor Middle School. She brought her classmates along to a meeting of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

"If there's a legal market for ivory, there's always going to be the illegal trade behind it," said Pat Bosco, a retired fish and wildlife special agent.

Legislators saw photos of confiscated illegal ivory in a warehouse. They heard that ivory that shows up in antique shops could be new ivory made to look old, and that any ivory sales encourage poaching.

"As long as there is value in ivory, the killing will continue," said Ashley Prout McAvey of Shelburne.

"Proceeds from the illegal harvest have funded militarist groups in Africa such as al-Shabaab, Janjaweed, Lord's Resistance Army, and Boko Haram", McAvey said, and "puts money into the hands of the worst people in the world."

Ivory that has made its way into the hands of consumers would be regulated under the proposed law.

It would allow ivory art and some furniture, jewelry, antique firearms and used pianos to be passed down as part of an estate, but they would lose their resale value.

"What can I say to you? I'm sorry, but it was that or the elephants!" Fishman said.

That line of reasoning didn't convince the antique dealers and musicians who came in to testify the following day.

"We find it intrusive and counterproductive to prohibit the owner of a 1943 Steinway grand piano, for example, from selling his or her piano in the music community," said Marie Johnson, head of the Vermont Music Teachers Association.

"We do not need pianos in our landfills," Johnson added. "A Vermont ban prohibiting the sale of pianos that contain legally-obtained ivory hurts owners of legally-obtained ivory, criminalizes piano owners and is ineffective in stopping illegal poaching."

Pianos and other instruments today are manufactured without ivory.

Banning the sale of ivory in Vermont would make private art and antique collections worthless, and could dis­courage people from preserving priceless cultural artifacts, said Ethan Merrill of Williston-based auction and appraisal company Duane Merrill & Co.

"Imagine your retirement package that you've saved for, hundreds of thousands of dollars — and then come January 1 next year, it's worthless," Merrill said.

The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs is also "strenuously opposed" to the bill, Vice President Evan Hughes said in a telephone interview.

"A lot of antique very valuable firearms have ivory on them," Hughes said.

At one point in the committee meeting Thursday, Kyle Scanlon, owner of Essex-based KC Scanlon Estate Sales, told the committee "you guys have so much more important stuff you could do."

"Do you really think this law in Vermont is going to affect anything in Africa?" Scanlon asked.

"Not Vermont alone, but in concert with others, it might very well shut off the money," Rep. David Dee, D-Westminster, said.

"OK, but we already have federal guidelines that are going after the importation, you have other states that are doing exemptions, New York and Connecticut. So I mean unless we work together as 50 states banded together, how is this going to work in Vermont alone?"

Deen replied that the federal law does not cover sales within states. "It allows for a continued market — at least, that is the concern expressed by the members of this body who introduced the bill."

All sorts of objects contain ivory, Scanlon said — even Victorian chairs in the Vermont Statehouse.

(After the meeting, Scanlon and Merrill agreed to an impromptu walking tour of Statehouse chairs and win­dow-dressings, but no obvious ivory could be found. The carved figurines on the Senate chamber's chandelier may contain some gilded ivory, Scanlon suggested. It's impossible to know without dismantling the lights.)

The committee is expected to solicit testimony from other witnesses in the coming days and determine whether the bill should move forward, with or without exemptions carved out for business.

As of April 30, House 297 is still being debated in the Fish, Wildlife and Water resources Committee.

For a copy of Marie's testimony, e-mail her at

Excerpted from the April 30, 2015 VMTA Newsletter

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