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Legislative Activism

In a democracy, advocates can "take the law into their own hands" through legislative activism. By advocating for legal protections for animals at the local, state, and even national level, you can help reduce animal suffering. While the prospect of lobbying legislators or proposing laws may seem daunting, it's really a pretty simple process. Remember — a lawmaker's job is to listen to the concerns of his or her constituents. Below, Born Free USA's helpful hints for getting laws and lawmakers to work for animals.

Lobbying Lawmakers

Lobbying isn't just for high-priced industry representatives; it's something anyone can do. In fact, few things impress lawmakers more than citizens willing to pay them a personal visit. Whether it's to discuss local issues or national topics, meeting with elected officials — from representatives in Congress to the state legislators or county supervisors — can influence policies that affect animals.

You don't have travel to DC or the state capitol to meet with your elected officials because they return to their home districts regularly, usually on weekends and during national holidays. In addition, legislators often hold town meetings to solicit constituent views. These are opportunities for you, as an individual or representing a group, to influence policy. If your issue is specific to your community, you can meet with local officials, such as city council members and county supervisors, to discuss how to help animals in your area.

There is no single "right" way to lobby. While following general guidelines, you should also trust your own personal style when meeting with public officials.

Your visit should accomplish both short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals may include persuading your lawmaker to vote on the pro-animal side of an issue, to co-sponsor an animal-friendly bill, or to oppose legislation that would hurt animals. Long-tem goals might include developing a relationship with an elected official and his or her staff and educating them on the issues.

When you meet with elected officials, you present two messages. The first is substantive and specific, such as: "Please support AB 202, a bill that would prevent the sale of unweaned birds in pet shops" or "Please oppose AB 396, a bill that would dramatically expand recreational hunting in the state."

The second message is more broad and political; you deliver that message simply by walking through the door. That there are constituents willing to take the time to present their views in person is a powerful message and one that lobbyists cannot hope to match, no matter how knowledgeable they are on the technicalities of an issue. While it helps to know the substance of an issue, constituents are not expected to know every detail of a piece of legislation. It's always okay to say, "I don't know the answer to that question, but I'll get back to you." In the meantime, the other message — the political message — gets delivered.

Here are a few tips on how to set up a meeting in a lawmaker's district:

Getting an Appointment:

Call the legislator's district office and request a meeting during the recess, when your legislator is home. Many lawmakers are in their districts from Friday to Monday, as well. The appointment secretary will want to know what the meeting is about. Limit your agenda to only a couple of items, or better yet, one topic. Polite but firm persistence through regular contact with the district's office is essential. If you can't get an appointment during the upcoming recess, express your disappointment — and immediately request a firm commitment for the next time the legislator is back home.

If you don't know who your congressional delegation or state lawmakers are, look in the white pages under U.S. and state government, call your public library, or go to www.firstgov.gov or www.congress.org.

Planning an Effective Meeting:

Lobbying in a small group is optimal. You may want to have at least one spokesperson represent several organizations to strengthen the impression that you speak for many constituents. Consider forming a local coalition (see Building a Coalition) with representatives from other groups and constituencies, including other animal organizations, faith leaders, and business owners.

Before the meeting, get your group together and decide who will say what. If possible, prepare a brief fact sheet about the issue and letters from your groups that you can leave with the legislator and his or her staff. Be sure to list the names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of each person in your group.

Expect your meeting to be brief. Find out in advance from the lawmaker's staff how much time you'll have and be sure to cover your key points early on. Ask the legislator for specific action: "Representative Jones, we urge you to support AB 1190 to ban dove hunting in the state."

Try to find a local angle. How does this issue affect animals in your community? Divide your agenda so that everyone in your group has a chance to speak. Remind everyone to begin and end by focusing on the specific action you'd like your representative to take: "Thanks for meeting with us, Assemblymember Stein. What is your position on AB 349, a bill that would ban the use of hounds in hunting?" Ask for the legislator's business card before you leave so that you can follow up on the meeting.

Meeting Etiquette:

Be on time and dress conservatively. Whatever your feelings about the virtues of sartorial self-expression, it's just good sense to avoid distracting or detracting from your message with radical fashions while meeting with lawmakers. Best to abide by the old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Always remain polite while holding true to your convictions. Think of lobbying as an opportunity for you to express your perspective with integrity and passion. Remember your goal of building a long-term working relationship with a lawmaker.

Be sure to introduce yourselves at the outset of the meeting. Have your leader give a brief introduction about your organization or coalition. State up front your reasons for seeking the meeting.

Endless Pressure, Endlessly Applied:

Follow up your meeting with a thank-you letter, along with any additional information you may have promised. Take the opportunity to build rapport with your elected official and his or her staff. If you don't get the response you want, keep trying. But don't be discouraged if you can't see eye-to-eye with your legislator on every issue; there's always another issue down the road. Persistence is key.

After the meeting, write down your thoughts about it. Be sure to note any questions the lawmaker or his or her staff may have had so that you can follow up. Keep this report on file so that you can refer to it when approaching that lawmaker on future issues. Lobbying lawmakers not only gives you an opportunity to express your views, but also allows you to gather political intelligence and build relationships for the future.

Lobbying lawmakers can be an empowering experience, and is a form of grassroots activism that has helped many animals. You have clout when you make your voice heard. Remember, speaking from the heart about your commitment to animal protection is your greatest strength.

CASE STUDY #1

Making Laws to Help Exotic Animals

Exotic animals, including big cats, bears, wolves, non-human primates and reptiles, belong in their natural habitats and suffer when kept as "pets." By their very nature, these animals are wild and potentially dangerous and do not adjust well to a captive environment.

Not only are exotic animals inherently dangerous, unpredictable and incapable of being domesticated, but most people cannot provide the special care, housing, diet and maintenance these animals require. Born Free USA investigations reveal disturbing examples of exotic animals doomed to live in severely inhumane conditions, languishing in isolated enclosures for the rest of their lives, and — in many cases — with teeth and claws surgically removed. Despite egregious and repeated Animal Welfare Act violations, these facilities are still able to possess exotic animals.

We are here to offer assistance and expert knowledge to help you work with your state, county, or local government on laws to help protect exotic animals from being kept as "pets." For help with ordinances, lobbying and legislation, call us at (800) 348-7387 or e-mail us at info@bornfreeusa.org.

Learn about How to Pass an Ordinance »