As a U.S. Army veteran, I have strong opinions about free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us.
I’ve been an outspoken animal welfare advocate for many years. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Most of my advocacy relates to keeping shelter animals alive using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. I also advocate for animals related to the issues I cover on my website: puppy mills, spay and neuter, adoption, aggression in dogs, breed bans, etc. I am the first to admit that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. In my early days of No Kill advocacy, I was too focused on the method I was promoting and not enough on the personalities of the people with whom I was dealing. Because I work in the legal field in municipal defense, I have always had a good handle on how local and state governments function. What I did not fully appreciate was that how my message is received is often as important as the message itself, regardless of my intent. I think the path I have taken would have changed little even if I had a better appreciation for position of the people with whom I was interacting. Some would have been defensive no matter how diplomatically I behaved. Some would not have been able to hear the message from me no matter now many years of experience I have or how much I know related to the issues about which I speak for animals.
One thing I have learned along the way is the importance of always striving to take the high road, no matter how others behave. There will always be people who oppose efforts to improve the welfare of animals for a host of reasons and there is little we can do about it. We cannot convince everyone to share our beliefs through magical thinking or sheer force of our will. Saying the same thing numerous times or saying it more loudly or forcefully is not the answer. I wrote about the behavior of some local opponents to my No Kill shelter advocacy in the book I published last year. People outside of animal welfare circles may think we all get along because we all want the same things. We do not all get along and there are great divisions and struggles between advocates. The people who voiced the loudest opposition to our efforts to reform the local animal shelter were from the animal rescue community. Doesn’t make much sense, I know. But that’s the reality. Even when we take the high road, that behavior is not always reciprocated and we have to learn to just tune out the hate and focus on the message and what we hope to accomplish.
In addition to my advocacy efforts related to No Kill animal sheltering, I’ve been involved with writing and advancing local laws in my state related to animals as well as writing, promoting and opposing laws on the state level. My bill about commercial dog breeding in my state has yet to be filed by my primary sponsor; it is standards-based and makes violations criminal, much like the criminal laws about abuse and neglect. My sponsor tells me he is holding my bill it as a common-sense alternative to a bill which he expects to be both overly ambitious and unenforceable. Time will tell if it is ever filed, but it has been reviewed for the state’s legal team and is ready to roll.
Just this week I was reminded again of the importance of staying on that high road when it comes to interacting with state elected officials. People who advocate for animals are passionate. We cannot lose sight, however, that how we communicate our opinion – and how we behave it we don’t get what we want – are of critical importance. I encourage everyone I know to speak out about proposed state laws that relate to animals. Sometimes bills about animals move so quickly the pubic knows nothing about them before they made laws. The reasons for this relate to money and influence by some large organizations like the AKC, Petland, insurance companies and Big Agriculture, but that’s the subject for another blog. When we communicate with state elected officials about bills, we have to be logical and respectful and we have to know what we’re talking about. To behave otherwise means that our message is lost completely. After having expressed our opinion about bills, we wait for the process to unfold and see what happens. If a bill we support does not pass, it is up to us to try to determine why. It may be that there is a way to promote something better in the future. It may be that the forces opposing the bill are just too strong to be overcome at the present time. If a bill we oppose does pass, it up to us to determine how we behave moving forward. Once a bill becomes a law, there is nothing we can do to turn back the hands of time. Laws are often amended, but that takes time so that circumstances change from the reasons the law was enacted in the first place.
When we yell, scream, threaten or otherwise run around like our hair is on fire related to laws, we lose all credibility and we stifle communication. I sometimes call this behavior Boomerang Aggression. We’re all familiar with the concept of a boomerang – a throwing tool or toy that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. Boomerang Aggression is when we behave so badly in our communication that we end up silencing our own efforts, having effectively hit ourselves in the head.
A number of animal bills have been filed in my state since the legislative session began in early February. Some are good like House Bill 134 which serves to define the single word, “shelter” in the existing criminal law about abuse and neglect of dogs and cats. This may seem like any easy bill. It is not. It has been opposed by some powerful organizations in past years and likely will be again this year. Nonetheless, animal advocates like me have voiced our support for the bill to the committee considering it and we’ll continue to express ourselves through the process.
One particular bill, Senate Bill 196, was not just terrible. It was downright dangerous. This bill would have put all control of all things animal under the exclusive control of the State Department of Agriculture (which has never dealt with any issues related to dogs and cats), would have nullified local laws already on the books about pet shops (for which I worked hard last year to promote) to open the door for companies like Petland to begin selling more animals in the state, would have put investigation of complaints of abuse and neglect in the hands of the Agriculture Department, would have criminal charged someone who reports animal abuse or neglect if the allegations later prove to be unfounded, and which would make it practically impossible for cities to enact new laws related to animals.
Through some incredibly hard work by a large number of people, to include the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States -Mindy Gilbert- we were able to get SB 196 stalled. After the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture said his department was not consulted on the bill and they were completely unprepared to deal with issues related to dogs and cats, and as a result of many people speaking out against the bill, the primary sponsor agreed to not advance the bill further. This was a huge deal for most of us, but we’re not claiming victory yet. The legislative session doesn’t end until May and anything can happen in the intervening months.
In spite of this small victory, some people in the Birmingham area have failed to do one simple thing: stop talking about Senate Bill 196. The primary sponsor has agreed to not advance the bill. When people continue to call, email and write to the senate sponsors (there are 6) to threaten them, engage in name calling and engage in otherwise aggressive behavior, that does two things. It paints all animal advocates as unreasonable zealots who are incapable of respectful communication and it makes it harder (if not impossible) to have constructive communication with those elected officials in the future.
I have seen this same behavior from the same people before. It has not served them well in the past and it is not serving any of us well now. Those people fail to understand that the very senators they are attacking are the very people from whom they will need cooperation in the future on similar animal law or other animal laws. When you are so aggressive in your communication that the person with whom you are communicating is no longer listening or decides to apply your behavior to others, you are doing terrible harm to the animal welfare movement as a whole.
So. Folks in Birmingham. Please. Stop talking. Let Senate Bill 196 die a quiet death in this legislative session and stop vilifying the very elected officials from whom you will no doubt need cooperation in the future. We can all communicate our position on proposed laws in ways which are logical, effective and respectful. I can’t control your behavior, but you can for the sake of us all, human and animal. If you can’t stop talking, that tells me your focus is not on animal welfare itself but on you as a person. So don’t be surprised if the boomerang comes back and hits you in the head. You will have deserved it. And we may all suffer the consequences of your inability to speak your truth without screaming it.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson