Legislating Compassion: A Year in Review

Last legislative session, we launched a campaign called Rescue Five-O. The initiative involved introducing shelter reform legislation, modeled after the Companion Animal Protection Act, in states across the country. Legislation we know is necessary for two reasons: first, shelters are killing animals needlessly despite ready available lifesaving alternatives and we need to force them to employ the alternatives. And second, even those shelters which are doing the right thing need legislation to make sure they keep doing so indefinitely, that the next director can’t undo the progress of the current one, as we have also seen.

As in any effort involving legislative endeavors, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that we succeeded in introducing legislation in six states: Florida, Virginia, Georgia, New York, West Virginia, and Minnesota. We also expect it to be introduced in others shortly. We’ve succeeded in educating many legislators about what is really happening behind the closed door of the animal shelter and the need to regulate them (We sent a copy of Redemption and a packet on shelter reform to every legislator in every state). We created tools to empower the grassroots, including a guide to political advocacy, a guide to passing humane legislation, a guide on both CAPA and rescue rights laws, and more. We’ve forced organizations like Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends to take sides and stand up to regressive organizations like the ASPCA. And we’ve made shelter reform laws one of the defining issues of our movement.

Of course the bad news is that we’ve not had legislation pass this session. It was tabled in Virginia and Georgia. It is stalled in West Virginia and Minnesota. And with the end of a shortened legislative session due to redistricting in Florida, our efforts there will also not be successful this year. In New York, we’ve been focused on fighting the Quick Kill bill, exactly as the ASPCA and their proxy, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, had intended.

And while these results aren’t good news, they aren’t dire either if we take a more comprehensive view. We are being opposed by the ASPCA, which is not only fighting us in New York, but is subsidizing some of our opposition in other states. They’ve also introduced their own bill in that state, which has had the intended effect of our mobilization shifting its focus from passing our own bill to fighting theirs. In Florida, as in Texas last year, HSUS joined the opposition in criticizing our bill. And, the “slaughterhouse workers” at PETA have gotten involved, urging their supporters to send letters of opposition and even holding a press conference to condemn our legislation.

But each time they do, it gives us a platform to educate legislators, to educate the media, to educate the public at large about who and what these groups really are, what they stand for (it’s not the animals), and what is happening to the animals. And with any legislation, on any issue that is opposed by the status quo, it takes time. When you are working to change the status quo, it is easy to become discouraged.   Sometimes, it can feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall that will never, ever move, despite how hard you push on it, especially when your opposition is big, powerful, wealthy, and seemingly invincible. And yet history shows us that the people who prevailed in transforming our world for the better and who we now regard as heroes in the ongoing struggle for greater justice, once faced the same seemingly insurmountable odds and obstacles that we do. We can see that while they may have felt that they were pushing against an impenetrable wall, with each push they were creating fractures and fissures that, in the end, destroyed the structural integrity of the wall they were bashing, and ultimately brought a seemingly solid monolith tumbling down. At this point in our movement, when our enemy is still so powerful, so pervasive, and still retains unwarranted credibility with many people, we must learn to celebrate those fractures and fissures, to recognize their meaning, to feel empowered by their significance, and to exploit them to the fullest extent possible.

There is no doubt that the obstacles we face are great. But not as great as the obstacles faced by other movements in history. Not only did they have to fight the status quo, they also had to fight the public’s prejudice which sustained it. In other words, they first needed to win the hearts and minds of the American public. And still they prevailed. This is an obstacle we do not face. Thankfully, the public is increasingly aware of just how broken our shelter system is and supports the No Kill alternative. 96% of Americans—almost every single person—believe we have a moral obligation to protect animals and that we should have strong laws to do so. Indeed, the average American is far more progressive about dogs and cats than every animal welfare and animal rights organization in the United States, with rare exception. The success of No Kill does not depend on winning the hearts and minds of the American public. We don’t need to gain their support because we have it already. And that makes our prognosis for success that much better.

In the last three years, not only did we succeed in passing shelter reform in Delaware, we’ve had it introduced in many states, forcing the pro-killing national organizations like HSUS, the ASPCA, and PETA to fight us across the country, exposing them for who and what they are, while tens of thousands of animal lovers become educated, mobilized,   and political, flooding their legislators with calls for support. We can’t underestimate the psychological impact this has on regressive shelters and equally regressive national organizations. They must feel under siege and at odds with an increasingly informed and savvy animal-loving American public, who they rely on to remain ignorant in order to take their money under false pretenses.

So take heart. Anything worth fighting for takes time. Our legislative setbacks are part of the process. And while succeeding in the short-term is the ideal, it is also unrealistic. If we take the long-view, we are right on track for where we need to be, what we need to be doing, and where we need to be going.

Rescue Five-O is a joint partnership between my organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, and   a separate organization with similar goals, No Kill Nation. It is also supported by Animal Wise Radio.