Guest blog by Penny Conly Ellison
Fighting for animal protection legislation can feel overwhelming. Often the same bills are floating around for years or even decades and, although the vast majority of voters may support them, the political winds never blow the right direction to get them over the finish line. Pennsylvania is a prototypical example of a state with a split personality when it comes to animals. There are strong advocacy organizations that want better tools to fight cruelty but certain agricultural and hunting interests are also well represented (and well funded) in Harrisburg. It can be frustrating to always hear that common sense animal protection legislation (like banning pigeon shoots) must be defeated because it will lead us down the road to banning all guns and all hunting. One way to combat the frustration of working to bring all the diverse groups in Harrisburg together is to go where your interests are more likely to coincide with your representatives and more likely to matter to them – your local governing body.
Cities, Counties and towns are all empowered to enact their own regulations dealing with animals. Although the law is somewhat complex, in general, they are not free to permit activities banned by state law but they are free to enact their own more stringent or specific regulations. Many types of regulations are good candidates for local ordinances (either in conjunction with and perhaps in lieu of state law) including legislation regarding care of feral cats, anti-tethering ordinances and extreme weather ordinances. In addition, local regulations prohibiting the use of bullhooks on circus elephants were cited as having had a profound effect on Ringling Brothers’ decision that they will be discontinuing the use of elephants in circuses. Even where big business is involved, local laws can end up having much broader influence, both because of the publicity they receive and because industry players want to avoid the expense of complying with varying rules in different locations.
What types of advocacy techniques will help advance the ball for local ordinances? We can learn some lessons from elementary school.
Storytelling captures audiences. The most effective advocacy techniques for animal advocates to use to argue for (or against) local legislation are personal and real. Collect real life stories to support the need for the law and gather quotes from those on the front lines. Do you want to regulate dogs left out in extreme weather? Your local humane officer probably has stories that will move a caring legislator into action. Stories about finding dogs frozen to the floors of doghouses or dead from heat stroke, while painful to hear, graphically illustrate the need for action. Empower your legislator with specific examples so that she can convince her peers that, of al the issues they could act upon, this one has urgency and importance.
Do your homework. Don’t just approach your councilperson and say you want a law that does X. Draft the ordinance –We all like to have our work done for us and legislators are no different. Local lawmakers are often volunteers who have a full time job outside government. Handing them a specific proposed law accomplishes at least two purposes. They will be grateful that you have done the legwork for them and you will know exactly what you are getting. It is unlikely that your councilperson is deeply involved in humane law enforcement or animal sheltering and, while meaning well, she may not understand all of the implications of a particular provision (for example, the original draft of the extreme weather ordinance in Philadelphia prohibited cats from being left outside when the temperature was above 85 degrees, ignoring the fact that the city has many free roaming cats and the animal control shelter itself was releasing cats into the community). So, you should plan on handing in an ordinance in the form you want it enacted but there is no need to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel. Research what other municipalities have adopted and/or model ordinances. Check out the ALDF website. HSUS and PETA have also compiled some resources. Also, figure out how the ordinance fits into the existing local Code. That means telling your lawmakers whether you are amending or replacing an existing provision or, if not, in which Chapter your provision should be included. Make it as easy as possible for them to be the mouthpiece for your bill.
Learn how things work.– Usually, individual council members introduce bills for consideration by the full body. Find a friend on council. It is best to approach your own representative on council but, if that does not work, network to see who cares about animal protection. Then find out whether it would need to be considered by a particular committee. If so, which one? Draft the bill and supporting materials (fact sheets, bullet points) with any relevant committees in mind (i.e., Does it have any budget impact? If an agriculture committee will give it initial consideration, will it affect farmers?) Also, tell them they are not alone. No legislator wants to look like an extremist. Compile a list of other legislative bodies that have adopted similar ordinances.
Finish The Job. Don’t Forget About Enforcement. A law on the books does nothing if the task of enforcement is not assigned to staff with appropriate powers or the staff is not trained in the provisions of the law and how to enforce it. If you are prohibiting an action, you will need to define penalties. How will fines be collected? Will the enforcing agents have the power to seize animals? If so, do they need to understand the procedure for how to obtain warrants? Do they have facilities to house seized animals and to provide necessary veterinary care? Remember seized animas still belong to their owners and must be treated as such until a court rules otherwise. Since sorting out this issue likely involves some knowledge of criminal and civil procedure and civil rights law, this is probably the most important point to seek the input of a lawyer if you don’t already have one on your team.
It’s important to make friends. Build your own groundswell . You also want to be sure to make the public aware of your issue and get them to contact their local legislator. This is easier now than ever with social media. Reach the most people by using all platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and enlist the help of individuals and other organizations that also support the law. In addition, the old reliable letter to the editor of the local newspaper can still work wonders and, after publication, you can email a link to friends and family and ask them to make their views known.
Be prepared.– Hearings may be held and offering up potential witnesses who can testify to the need for the legislation and how it will be enforced is important.. If testimony is necessary, prepare your witnesses. Know the opposition’s concerns and prepare answers to address them.
You might not always be able to have everything your own way. –Prepare for compromise. Discuss with others who have advocated for similar legislation which aspects of the ordinance have raised the most concerns and be ready with amendments that will address the concern to a reasonable degree without gutting the main purpose of the bill. For example, an exception to an anti tethering ordinance could allow for tethering during any necessary veterinary procedures or during dog shows or other competitions.
Losing can be a great teacher. – You may not win. If not, you will be back. Don’t forget that. Enemies can become friends. Objections can be overcome. Political winds change. If it made it to a vote, document who voted for and against the bill and try to get reasons for any opposition.
Any kind of legislative advocacy requires patience and can be incredibly frustrating when good, seemingly unobjectionable laws languish for reasons having nothing to do with their merits. Building momentum through local ordinances is not only a powerful tool to effect change, it can be an antidote to the powerless feeling that often accompanies advocating for larger scale change.
Penny Conly Ellison is Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and has taught a course in Animal Law and Ethics since 2006. She is a member of the board of the Pennsylvania SPCA and Executive Director of The Hand2Paw Foundation, a nonprofit that enables homeless youth to volunteer in Philadelphia’s animal shelters.