h-armstrong-roberts-1930s-magician-hands-pulling-rabbit-out-of-top-hatPulling a rabbit out of a hat is a classic magic trick. But if a magician wants to do it nowadays he also needs to be able to pull out a license for the hare and a USDA-approved “rabbit disaster plan” that details how the bunny will hop to safety in case of a natural disaster, like a hurricane, flood, or sharknado. Or even if the air conditioning goes out.

This Kafkaesque regulatory requirement started over forty years ago — with a dog named Pepper.

In 1965, Pepper disappeared from the yard of her home. Shortly after the disappearance, the owner recognized his missing dog in a picture taken of an animal dealer’s overcrowded truck featured in a local newspaper. The owner’s wife, children, and even his congressman tried to locate and retrieve the dog but were denied entrance to the “dog farm.” Unfortunately, the family never got the dog back: Pepper had been euthanized in an experimental procedure at a New York hospital. The incident led the congressman to introduce H.R. 9743, a bill that would require dog and cat dealers, and the laboratories that purchased the animals, be licensed and inspected by the USDA.

According to the USDA, the 1966 law, which was primarily concerned with dogs and cats, was restrictive in regards to its coverage of the types of animals and regulated facilities. Research facilities only had to register if they received government funding and the dogs or cats had to have crossed state lines. But as David A. Fahrenthold notes, “the letter of the law was broad. In theory, it could apply to someone who “exhibited” any animals as part of a show.” And indeed it does:

[Children’s magician Mary Hahne] has an official USDA license, No. 43-C-0269, for Casey — a three-pound Netherland dwarf rabbit with a look of near-fatal boredom. The rules require Hahne to pay $40 a year, take Casey to the vet and submit to surprise inspections of his home.

Also, if Hahne plans to take the rabbit out of town for an extended period, he must submit an itinerary to the USDA. The 1966 law that started all of this was four pages long. Now, the USDA has 14 pages of regulations just for rabbits.

But not all rabbits. Animals raised for meat are exempt from these rules.

“You’re telling me I can kill the rabbit right in front of you,” Hahne says he asked an inspector, “but I can’t take it across the street to the birthday party” without a license? Also, the law applies only to warmblooded animals. If Hahne were pulling an iguana out of his hat — no license required.

Now, he needs both a license and a disaster plan.

After Hurricane Katrina, many animals were abandoned as people in the disaster area fled to save their own lives. To prevent this from happening in the future, the federal government now requires that all “licensed exhibitors” submit a written plan to save their animals. So now if a magician is ever trapped in a hurricane, they have a detailed plan for how to make sure their rabbit gets to safety. Hahne’s plan — which is considered short for such documents — is 28 pages long (you can read it here).

As AEI’s Mark J. Perry says,

This is just one small example, among thousands or millions, of how federal regulations suffocate private businesses, reduce economic growth by as much as 2% per year, and make us all as much as 72% poorer, according to the findings of one recent study on the cost of federal regulations.

Such is the effect of regulatory overreach. With a wave of the regulator’s pen, American wealth disappears faster than you can say “abracadabra.”