Helping Animals Through Legislative Action
The Active Activist
Part three in a Series
By Michelle Rivera -
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
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
John Goodwin's counterpart at the Fund for Animals is
Pierre Grzybowski. His e-mail address is
[email protected]. 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
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
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
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
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
Pierre's contact information is as follows:
Pierre Grzybowski, Grassroots Coordinator, The Fund for Animals
(301) 585-2591 ext. 204
8121 Georgia Avenue, Suite 301, Silver Spring, MD 20910
The Animal Legal Defense Fund also gets involved
with legislative action. They have an interesting and informative
www.aldf.org, where you can learn about helping animals through
The contact at the ALDF is Stephan Otto and his e-mail
address is: [email protected].
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
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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