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From 25 January 2004 Issue

Helping Animals Through Legislative Action

The Active Activist
Part three in a Series
By Michelle Rivera - michellerivera1@aol.com

As animal rights activists, it seems we are on everyone's list for everything from action alerts to newsletters of every shape and size. These are usually very important e-mails that frequently request that we write a letter to someone, fire off a fax or e-mail or make a phone call. How do we decide which ones to respond to and which ones we can put on the back burner?

The answer to this question is different for everyone. Surely, we all have time constraints and need to make the best use of our time. Many of the national organizations have departments and personnel to deal with legislative actions and when it comes to getting to the truth, they know their stuff.

As an activist with over thirty years worth of letters tucked away in a binder and stored on disks, I have found that my biggest priority is insuring that the information I receive in my e-mail each day is reliable and truthful. I have had the unpleasant experience of writing letters of outrage on some issue or another only to find that my information has been wrong. Not long ago, a friend of mine, a producer for the local ABC affiliate, received a communication from one of the animal-rights organizations accusing a certain legislator of a misdeed involving marine mammals. She was prepared to run the story but had to check the sources first. Luckily, she had a good friend on staff at the legislator's local office and within a few minutes of receiving the initial communication she determined it was completely unfounded. When she confronted the folks at the animal rights organization, they backed off.

The lesson here is that we must take the time to insure that what we are writing about is true and factual and not exaggerated or sensationalized. Your reputation as an activist depends on it.

Another rule that I try to follow is to be concise and succinct in my letter writing. Try to refrain from lecturing or haranguing an editor or legislator and cut out the rhetoric. Using the words "innocent animals" and "sentient beings" over and over again is not productive. Neither is confrontational or threatening language.

Usually, it is best to just state "I live in your district and I urge you to vote yes on the anti-cruelty bill. To learn more about why I feel strongly about this bill, please visit this website or call me at…" You can bet that they have received letters from the national organizations that put forth all the relevant arguments and if you parrot them it will look insincere.

They usually don't care WHY you feel one way or another, they just want to know WHAT you are looking for them to do. Of course, letters to the editors require more information and well-stated arguments. But they, too, must be short and to the point.

John Goodwin is with the Humane Activist Network, the result of a unique partnership between the Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States. He is the facilitator for a huge phone tree network across the United States. Contact him if you want to get involved with the Humane Activist Network as either a district captain or state coordinator. A state coordinator keeps in touch with John and the Humane Activist Network and will be the first to learn of opportunities to call our legislators. John will let the state coordinator know when an issue is pending, immediate or pressing and the state coordinator in turn will call his or her district captain across the state. The district captains then call members on their phone trees. The whole process shouldn't take more than a few hours and is critical when a vote is imminent. You may e-mail John at JGoodwin@hsus.org.

John Goodwin's counterpart at the Fund for Animals is Pierre Grzybowski. His e-mail address is pgrzybowski@fund.org. I asked Pierre some specific questions about activism through politics and he was kind enough to share his knowledge with Animal Rights Online. Here is that interview:

ARO: What e-mail lists or action alerts do you recommend people get on?

Pierre: The Fund for Animals and The Humane Society of the United States jointly organize the Humane Activist Network (HAN)--a nationwide legislative network of activists who influence bills affecting animals on both the state and federal level. Activists can get involved by signing-up for The Fund for Animals Action Center (http://action.fund.org) and clicking the box that says "YES! I want to join the Humane Activist Network and signup for HUMANElines!"

In addition, each state usually has its own network of independent activists and local groups who work on animal legislation. Activists can call the animal advocacy groups and shelters in their state to find out who is active in the legislative arena.

Finally, some groups and activists focus their legislative efforts on particular species, or even breeds, of animals. For those interested in working for certain animals, an internet search will usually turn up who is active, and ways to get involved.

ARO: Do you feel it is effective for people in one state to lobby in another (for example, if there is an issue on the ballot in Vermont should people in Florida call the Vermont legislators?)

Pierre: Generally, people should only lobby their own elected officials. However, some states do allow people who live in other states to get involved in the legislative process in limited ways. For example, the successful ballot initiative in Florida to ban gestation crates received a good deal of help from non-residents who gathered signatures within the state.

ARO: Does The Fund get involved in local animal cruelty cases?

Pierre: The Fund for Animals gets involved in local cruelty cases on a limited basis, depending on our resources in the area, and the type of animal involved. Recently, we took the lead in caring for and placing a number of tigers and leopards removed from an abuse situation at a pseudo-sanctuary. We are perhaps most well known for providing a home to abused, neglected, and unwanted animals at our Black Beauty Ranch in Texas.

ARO: Do you know anyone else who does?

Pierre: Local law enforcement agencies, and sometimes local humane groups, are empowered to charge an individual with animal cruelty under their state's laws. Attorneys for the state must then decide whether or not to prosecute. Input from the community can influence the level of attention given to animal cruelty cases by both humane enforcement officers and state's attorneys. This input can come from everyone from local activists to national groups. Generally, the more notorious or precedent-setting the case, the more involvement there is by the animal protection community. Besides pushing for more attention to be paid to animal cruelty cases, working to pass legislation that strengthens anti-cruelty laws is important. As of 2003, lobbying by activists has helped establish felony-level punishments for animal cruelty in 41 states.

ARO: How can people most effectively use their vote and their voice to help animals?

Pierre: The most effective way for activists to influence the legislative process is to develop relationships with their elected officials. This means lobbying in person at least once a session, and regularly calling and writing about specific bills. Not only will this keep the officials cognizant of their pro-animal constituents, but will increase an activist's chances of getting emergency meetings on fast moving bills.

Many people find it less intimidating to start out on the state level, both because the offices are relatively nearby, and because it is often easier to get an appointment for personal meetings. However, federal and state bills vary in their approach and scope, so lobbying at both levels is important.

Getting involved in the legislative process pays dividends from the beginning, but developing personal relationships with elected officials and really becoming a player in your state can take years. Approach the process with patience and perseverance.

ARO: What would you most like to get across to readers about what they should or shouldn't do when trying to get something done on behalf of the animals?

Pierre: The importance of presenting yourself in a way that is appropriate for the situation cannot be overstated. The most obvious application of this principle is to dress similar to your audience, to remove at least that one reason for being viewed as an "other" or outsider. So while business suits must be worn when lobbying, they would probably be inappropriate for outreach on a liberal college campus.

ARO: Is there anything else you want to mention to Animal Writes readers?

Pierre: Pro-animal legislation cannot succeed without the support of individual activists within each of the fifty states and 435 congressional districts who can lobby their elected officials.

Pierre's contact information is as follows:
Pierre Grzybowski, Grassroots Coordinator, The Fund for Animals pierre@fund.org
(301) 585-2591 ext. 204
8121 Georgia Avenue, Suite 301, Silver Spring, MD 20910
http://www.fund.org 

The Animal Legal Defense Fund also gets involved with legislative action. They have an interesting and informative website www.aldf.org, where you can learn about helping animals through legislative action.

The contact at the ALDF is Stephan Otto and his e-mail address is: sotto@aldf.org.

Among the tips offered on their website is that one should be up-to-date and informed about the issues so that if you do get an opportunity to discuss a piece of legislation with an aid or with the actual representative, you will come across as knowledgeable and enlightened and you will be less of a target for false claims or excuses. They also advise activists to establish a rapport with legislative staff well before you need to call on them for help with a bill. A simple friendly phone call or letter to your congressman or senator's office introducing yourself as a local animal advocate is a good way to get started.

And of course, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has action alerts and information on legislation on their website at www.peta.org/alert. They, too, have an action alert mailing list.

Other websites that are interesting and contain legislative information are the ASPCA at www.aspca.org and the Humane Society of the United States at www.hsus.org. Humane USA is a political action committee (PAC) that stays on top of legislation, platforms and candidates. For information on the current presidential candidates and their stances on animals, visit Humane USA at www.humaneusa.org.

Stay informed, get involved, be a voice for the voiceless. For help, get in touch with one of the national organizations or your local animal rights organizations.

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