Newsletter - Animal Writes © sm
30 July 2009

Evolution of a Bill
Michelle A. Rivera - [email protected]

Can you imagine a government with a Senator Stallwood, Congressman Pacelle or President Bauston? Wow! How about Attorney General Ingrid Newkirk or Surgeon General Neal Barnard????? Holy Cats! What a wonderful country this would be then!

The animal rights movement is bound for new hiking trail. Recognizing that our movement must become more political if we are to succeed, more and more of our leaders are advocating the birth of political action committees. During the animal-rights convention, one speaker spoke of the failed efforts to pass legislation to ban cockfighting. In the minds of most Americans, cockfighting is a brutal, bloody activity. It seems that a ban on this activity, with it’s attendant activities such as raising, transporting and equipping the birds, would be an issue that wouldn’t take a whole lot of action on our part. But who would have believed that the cock fighters have their very own lobby! They have organized, formed a political action committee, hired a lobbyist, and they beat us down. They won. This from a group of people whose idea of sports clashes with that of most Americans. This, from a group of people who engage in gambling, which is illegal in most states. They won.

By educating ourselves on how our bills become laws, we can swing the momentum in a new direction. And, we can start in our own community. We can even turn a tragedy into action.

Two years ago, while working as a cruelty investigator for my local rescue organization, I received a call from a local veterinarian. An elderly couple had brought a dog to her clinic. This dog, a Pomeranian, had been skinned alive. She was immediately euthanized. It was the most humane thing that could have been done. The vet estimated that she had been in this condition for hours, although how long she had been on the side of the road where she was found was unknown.

The resulting investigation involved the canvassing of the neighborhoods close to where she had been found. A family came forward to say that they thought this may be their Pomeranian, Sadie, who they had let out to go potty but who didn’t come home. The community went wild thinking that some sick monster was taking family pets and skinning them alive. Our shelter set up a reward fund and invested the first $1,000. Sadies Fund rose to $3,000 as soon as the story aired on the local news.

About a week later, a man turned himself in to the Jupiter Police Department. He told them that he was responsible for skinning the Pomeranian. His name was Douglas Rasmussan, a teacher at a local Jupiter grade school. The reason he was turning himself in, he explained, was that he wanted to put an end to the hysteria that had taken over our little town. There was no sicko lose in the community, and family pets were not in danger. He had merely run over the dog with his car. The drive shaft had grabbed the dogs coat at the nape of her neck, and she was completely degloved (the medical term for complete removal of the coat and skin). He did stop for a minute, got out of his car, saw that the dog would probably die, and kept going. He had two kids in the car, he explained, he didn’t want to upset them.

He hit Sadie at 7:35 AM. She was found at 4:40 PM. She stayed on the side of the road, alive, in the South Florida heat, with insects and dirt all over her, for the entire day and only one driver had stopped to help her.

Rasmussan was charged with cruelty to animals, but the judge dismissed the case saying that there was no law in Florida that bestows upon drivers the obligation to stop and render aid to an animal hit with a motor vehicle.

Sadies’ Fund was immediately converted to a fund to pay for animals who have been injured in car accidents. The existence of this fund would assure motorists who hit an animal, or who see an animal who has been hit, that they would not be stuck with a big vet bill. Sadie’s Fund would pay for animals hurt in these circumstances.

Feeling that Rasmussan got away with abandonment, cruelty, irresponsibility and just plain stupidity that caused the tortuous death of a little dog, I decided to see if a law could be passed in Florida that required drivers to stop and render aid. These are the very simple steps that I took, and I hope that by my sharing them with readers, they can use this knowledge to help animals in their own communities.

I first contacted the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and asked if any states had such laws. There were eleven. The attorneys there compiled a package of state statutes that spoke to this issue. They also drafted a bill that I could present to my state Representative. They stayed in constant touch with me by phone, mail, faxes and e-mail. They were my closest ally and they were absolutely priceless in their support and friendship.

Next, I involved my local animal rights group, the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) and asked for their support. If I got the bill as far as the committee, I wanted them to send out action alerts to their members asking that they write in support of this proposed bill. ARFF agreed.

In order to get a bill in front of congress, you must have a member of congress to introduce the bill, so, I made an appointment with my state representative, Sharon Merchant. I took all the materials sent to me by the ALDF. I told her the story of Sadie, and she read over all the other state laws that I had brought her. She spent about an hour going over all the points of the proposed “Sadies Bill”. I asked her to sponsor the bill.

She was somewhat in favor of doing so, but didn’t commit right away. She wanted input from the State Attorney’s office, and so Sadies Bill was sent to the State Attorney to get their ideas.

I am sorry to say that Sadies’ Bill is not going well. I have had a meeting with several prosecutors who tell me that they would not be comfortable prosecuting “render aid” requirement because people hit animals all the time. What about hitting birds, squirrels, mice? Will these motorists be required to stop? And what of the inherent danger in stopping to help an injured animal, people could get bitten. Rep. Merchant’s feeling is, that if the prosecutors won’t put their heart into prosecuting those who ignore this law, there is no reason to have the law. The state attorney’s must be in our corner for this to work.

Their concerns are valid, and we are still in the process of discussing the details. Perhaps people don’t have to stop, maybe they can just be required to report the injury so someone could come help. In any event, the process is in motion and hopefully, we will be able to win one for the animals.

So the steps are simple. Draft the proposed bill, get ALDF involved, find an organization with members who can help you to support it, and make an appointment with your congressperson. The hard part is getting a congressperson to sponsor the bill. Your local animal-rights and rescue groups probably know who the animal-friendly politicians are and can steer you in the right direction. Its good to start with your own representative from your own district, but if that person isn’t willing to help, you can go outside your district.

Any person can propose a bill, but only a member of congress can introduce it. The Speaker of the House then sends the bill to a committee. The committee then reviews the bill and votes on it. Sometimes there is a sub-committee to help with research and polling to see how popular an idea the bill may be.

The committee, by it’s vote, will either kill the bill or pass it on to the Senate. If the bill is killed in committee, its dead. It cannot be resurrected unless brought up again with a different name and drastically different structure. If the committee doesn’t kill the bill, it gets passed to the Senate Rules committee. The Rules committee then passes it on to the senate, and the senate agriculture committee will debate the bill and make any changes it deems necessary. It is during this most critical of times that letters and phone calls to your representatives can make the bill a reality.

A conference committee is made of senate and house members. This committee irons out the bill, and sends it back to the house and senate to be voted on again. If it survives, it is sent to the President to be signed into law.

There are several other things that impact the bill. Special interest groups are very prominent in creating bills. These interest groups contribute financially to the campaign funds of the politicians. If we are to pass animal-related legislation, we must have our own interest groups, and we must be ready to put money into campaigns to elect political officials who can get these laws passed.

The National Rifle Association is one of the biggest political action committees there is. They are cohesive and organized, and they pay big money into the funds of political candidates. We can and must follow the lead of other movements who are successful in their endeavors to advance their agenda.

The animal-rights movement is a movement that speaks up for those who cannot contribute to campaign coffers, cannot vote, cannot riot in the streets. If we are to succeed in our quest to speak up for those who can’t, be must move beyond letter-writing and boycotts, we must elect those politicians who think the way we do. We must help them advance their careers so that they can turn around and help us advance our agenda. This means we must contribute to their campaigns, and expect favors in return, we must volunteer at their campaign headquarters by answering phones and stuffing envelopes. We must get involved. If the animals could do these things, they most surely would.

We must become more political in our thinking. The future success of our movement depends upon it.

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