OZARK, MISSOURI – This summer, Marty the Magician got a letter from the U.S. government. It began with six ominous words: “Dear Members of Our Regulated Community . . .”
Washington had questions about his rabbit. Again.
Marty Hahne, 54, does magic shows for kids in southern Missouri. For his big finale, he pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Or out of a picnic basket. Or out of a tiny library, if he’s doing his routine about reading being magical.
To do that, Hahne has an official U.S. government license. Not for the magic. For the rabbit.
The Agriculture Department requires it, citing a decades-old law that was intended to regulate zoos and circuses. Today, the USDA also uses it to regulate much smaller “animal exhibitors,” even the humble one-bunny magician. That was what the letter was about. The government had a new rule. To keep his rabbit license, Hahne needed to write a rabbit disaster plan. “Fire. Flood. Tornado. Air conditioning going out. Ice storm. Power failures,” Hahne said, listing a few of the calamities for which he needed a plan to save the rabbit.
Or maybe not. Late Tuesday, after a Washington Post story on Hahne was posted online, the Agriculture Department announced that the disaster-plan rule would be re-examined.
“Secretary [Tom] Vilsack asked that this be reviewed immediately and common sense be applied,” said department spokeswoman Courtney Rowe.
Rowe said Vilsack had ordered the review “earlier this week.” But it was not announced until 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Just hours before — at 5:50 p.m. — the department had been vigorously defending the rule, with another spokeswoman praising its “flexibility,” saying it was designed to accommodate even a small-time operation like a magician and a rabbit.
For Hahne, this whole saga has provided a lesson in one of Washington’s bad old habits — the tendency to pile new rules on top of old ones, with officials using good intentions and vague laws to expand the reach of the federal bureaucracy.
In this case, Washington’s reach extended into a place that — as far as the audience knows — does not exist. That would be the hidden “load chamber” inside Marty the Magician’s hat. Where Casey the licensed rabbit waits for his cue. “Our country’s broke,” Hahne said. “And yet they have money and time to harass somebody about a rabbit.”
Hahne is a slight man with the stage persona of an exuberant doofus — he seems constantly surprised by his own tricks. He’s been doing magic shows full time for 27 years, on cruise ships and on land. That means he’s experienced most of the troubles a magician can expect: Overexcited kids who wet themselves after he brought them onstage. A shipboard drunk who threw up on his props. A rabbit so mean it growled. But he did not expect the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“She said, ‘Show me your license.’ And I said, ‘License for . . .?’ ” Hahne recounted. This was after a 2005 show in Missouri. Among the crowd of parents and kids, there was a woman with a badge. A USDA inspector. “She said, ‘For your rabbit.’ “
Hahne was busted. He had to get a license, or lose the rabbit. He got the license. (The inspector did not respond to a request to tell her side of the story.)
In the past decade, the same thing has happened to other children’s magicians across the country, according to Mark Daniel, president of the trade association KIDabra. He’s heard from 10. They checked and were surprised. It was the law. “It was on the books 40 years,” Daniel said. “And nobody knew anything.”
The story behind it illustrates the reality of how American laws get made. First Congress passes a bill, laying out the broad strokes. Then bureaucrats write regulations to execute those intentions.
And then, often, they keep on writing them. And writing them.
In this case, the long road to regulated rabbits began back in 1965 — when Capitol Hill was captivated with the story of a dognapped Dalmatian named Pepper. The dog had been stolen from its family, used in medical research and killed. After an outcry, Congress passed a law that required licenses for laboratories that use dogs and cats in research.
In 1970, Congress passed an amendment that extended the law’s reach. It now covered a variety of other animals. And it covered animal “exhibitors,” in addition to labs. At the time, legislators seemed focused on large facilities with lots of animals: “circuses, zoos, carnivals, roadshows and wholesale pet dealers,” said then-Rep. Tom Foley, a Washington state Democrat who was a major backer the bill.
But the letter of the law was broad. In theory, it could apply to someone who “exhibited” any animals as part of a show.
Apparently, it does.
Hahne has an official USDA license, No. 43-C-0269, for Casey — a 1.4-kg 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.
This new rule was first proposed by the USDA in 2006 under President George W. Bush.
Its inspiration was Hurricane Katrina, in which animals from pet dogs to cattle to lab mice were abandoned in the chaos. Now, all licensed exhibitors would need to have a written plan to save their animals.
The government asked for public comments in 2008. It got 997. Just 50 commenters were in favor of the rule as written.
But that, apparently, was enough. After a years-long process, the rule took effect Jan. 30.
So who, exactly, made the decision to implement the rule?
“There was no one person who proposed the regulation or who determined it should be a regulation instead of nonbinding guidance,” spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said. She said the agency sought to address commenters’ concerns. But then, late Tuesday, the USDA announced it would re-examine this rule that it had spent so many years crafting.
“As soon as this issue was brought to Secretary Vilsack’s attention, he asked for it to be reviewed,” said Rowe, the other department spokeswoman.
The department said its review would focus on the way the disaster-plan rule was being applied to small-time operations like Hahne’s. But officials could not provide details about what the review would involve. Or how long it would take. For now, the law still says plans are supposed to be done by July 29.
Even before the USDA announced its review, not every magician seemed to be taking the job seriously. “I’ll take a piece of paper and put down, ‘Note: Take rabbit with you when you leave,’ ” said Gary Maurer, a magician with a licensed rabbit in South Carolina. “That’s my plan.”
But Hahne has obtained professional help. Kim Morgan, who has written disaster plans for entire federal agencies, heard about his case and volunteered to help write the rabbit’s plan for free.
So far, the plan she has written is 28 pages. “That’s pretty short” given what the USDA asked for, Morgan said. She covered many of the suggested calamities: chemical leaks, floods, tornadoes, heat waves. But she was able to skip over some concerns that might apply to larger animals.
When Hahne’s plan is finally ready, it will go into the envelope where he keeps his rabbit license. On one recent day, that envelope was on the dashboard, as Hahne drove to a gig in Battlefield, Missouri.
“Do you want to see a magical place right now?” Hahne later asked the preschoolers, building up to his big finish. “It says, ‘Library.’ Everybody say, ‘Library!’ “
Hahne had already done his warm-up tricks: The wand that magically falls apart. The wristbands that link themselves together. The picture that turns from black-and-white to color. It was time for the finale. He had brought out a box labeled “Library,” one of the 14 tricks that he uses to make a rabbit appear.
The box appeared empty. Of course. Then Hahne opened a hidden compartment.
And there — magically — was Casey. “Bunny!” The children squealed and pointed.
After the show, Hahne put Casey back in her case and drove home. His wife, Brenda, asked how it went. He told her there’d been no disasters.
“The show went well,” he said. “Nobody peed onstage.”