Advocating for pets in your local area
As the end finally nears after an intense and polarizing presidential election, it’s important to remember that this election was about much more than just the president and Congress. For tens of thousands of citizens, the mayor, city council or county representatives were up for election.
It’s no secret that the national and, to a lesser extent, state races typically get all the attention. What many people don’t realize is just how much local elections affect our daily lives. This is especially true when it comes to animal sheltering issues. Municipal laws typically regulate community pets at a far greater level than even state laws. So, these local elections can — literally — be a matter of life and death.
Think about it. Who approves your shelter’s budget? Who passes the laws that dictate whether residents will be allowed to own any breed of dog they choose, or whether cats will be subject to leash laws? These decisions are made at the local level, typically by city councils or county commissions. In other words, they’re made by your neighbors, by regular folks. That’s good news, right? It’s what democracy is all about. On the other hand, how much do your neighbors really know about these issues?
Elected officials at all levels of government are expected to make decisions about a dizzying array of issues, but this can be even more challenging at the local level, where many policymakers are new to politics. Imagine yourself in their shoes for a minute, having to get up to speed on, say, mass transit, water treatment and property taxes — all before lunch.
So, want to help pets in your community’s shelters? The best place to start is with your city council. These people are elected by YOU to represent YOU, so it’s important that your elected officials hear from you about the issues important to you. As an animal advocate, you can urge your elected officials to pass important legislation and support programs to help pets in your community. Whether you advocate for repealing breed-discriminatory laws, passing retail pet sales bans or supporting lifesaving programs for your local shelter, you can play a vital role in saving the lives of pets in your community by engaging in a positive way with your local elected officials.
Keep in mind that elected officials are more inclined to work with you when you have established a positive relationship with them and they understand the need for a particular piece of legislation. By the way, this doesn’t necessarily have to be an entirely new law. In fact, that’s rarely the case. More often, it’s a revision to some provisions in a local law (otherwise known as an ordinance or municipal code).
Here are five steps to engage with your city council representatives more effectively.
1. Be prepared.
Before you ever meet with your legislators, you need to do some preparation. First, find out who your elected officials are; you can usually find this information on your city’s website. Do you have a district representative? This is someone you voted for who represents you and the other residents in the part of the city you live in. In some cases, especially in smaller communities, there are no districts; all council members represent the entire community.
In addition, identify the council members who have pets. You might see a cat or dog in their photo on the city’s website, for example. A little online sleuthing might turn up a news story about their volunteer work at the local shelter. Although this isn’t essential to your success, it can be a great advantage to have this kind of information. Identifying the animal lovers gives you a sense of who might sponsor and support animal-friendly legislation.
2. Familiarize yourself with the legislative process and the current local and state laws already in place.
Start out with a thorough read of your local animal ordinances to get an understanding of what is already happening and where potential gaps are in protecting pets in your community. Most of us have never attended city council meeting before, never mind participated in the process. Not to worry, though — these meetings are surprisingly accessible. After all, it is the whole point of having public meetings. Most cities post council agendas well in advance.
To attend these meetings, you first need to know when and where they are held, of course. Again, check the city’s website for the schedule of upcoming meetings. Because of the pandemic, many of these meetings are now being held virtually, making it easier than ever for you to see what they’re like. Doing so will help you become familiar with meeting protocols, the legislative process and the elected officials themselves. Attending meetings is a great way to familiarize yourself with the council members’ governing style and positions on issues.
It’s best to attend a few meetings — whether virtually or in-person — before there are any animal-related issues on the agenda. You want to get a good sense of the process before you participate.
3. Know the issue.
Now it’s time to do your homework. You need to put together a case for your elected officials to support a particular piece of legislation. Don’t worry about the specific language just yet; focus more on the issue. Do your research so that you can provide them with data and facts in support of your legislation. The idea here is to establish yourself as someone who is knowledgeable, not just passionate, about the legislation.
This step can be a little daunting, but we’re here to help with an extensive library of advocacy resources.
If you can, provide council members with examples of legislation that other communities have used to address the same issue. This can be especially effective if the communities are nearby. It gives everybody a great starting point to draft legislation for your city.
Next, identify any organizations that might be opposed to the legislation and formulate responses. If there has been a recent story in the local paper or on the news, that’s a great place to do this kind of research. You don’t need to become an expert, but you do want to be prepared.
Ultimately, the information you provide your elected officials should give them every reason to say yes and no reason to say no to your request to support the legislation.
4. Meet your elected officials.
You’ve done your homework, so now it’s time to contact your elected officials (by email or phone) to schedule a face-to-face or virtual meeting. Again, this can be intimidating, but don’t forget that they were elected to represent you and they need to hear from you about the issues that are important to you.
When you meet with your elected officials, be positive, respectful and reasonable. The first impression you make will influence your relationship with them and their interest in working with you — on this issue and any future issues. Give them a copy of the legislation information packet and your contact information.
Before the meeting is over, ask them to sponsor and/or support the legislation. If they decline, ask which of their colleagues they might recommend. They’ll know best how to get the legislation passed. Be sure to ask them to suggest next steps, too, and give you any insights about the other elected officials that you will be meeting with.
5. Participate, persist and be patient.
This isn’t really a step in the process as much as it is a mantra. The three Ps — participation, persistence and patience — are so important in the legislative process.
To be successful, you need to stay involved and not give up. It takes time to get legislation through the process. This is especially true of legislation that leads to big changes; the more ambitious the legislation, the longer it typically takes. But the return on investment is very often worth the wait.
Don’t stop with your own participation. Be sure to encourage your neighbors to get involved, too. Once you have educated elected officials on the need for your legislation, they really need to know that there is community support for it. The more people they hear from, the better. Again, we’re here to help with our grassroots advocacy resources.
Now that you’ve helped participate in passing local laws that mandate the care and protection of your community’s pets, be sure to lend support to the people who are commissioned to enforce the regulations: your local animal control officers. Across the country, municipal animal control agencies act as the front line of animal protection in our communities, carrying out the mandates that the legislative process creates. These men and women are dedicated to serving animals and their community. You can play a very large role in their success. Now that you know your local and state laws, you’ll easily see how big their job is.
A few simple things that citizens can do:
- Let the city council know when you think animal control does a good job. All too often, the only calls elected officials get about animal control are complaints. This often leads the agency to feel as though they shouldn’t try new programs like trap-neuter-return (TNR) or fix a fence to prevent a dog from escaping rather than issuing a citation and impounding the dog.
- Call and encourage them to consider increasing animal control’s annual budget or, better yet, testify on their behalf during budget appropriations hearings. Offer ideas on what the additional funding can be used for and how it could increase lifesaving and support in the community.
- Volunteer! Most municipal animal control agencies are in dire need of volunteers to help them care for the animals at the shelter. Doing so will also give you a more in-depth understanding of exactly what is needed in your community.
Participation at this level of local government isn’t for everybody, but you might be surprised. Once you see that policymakers are people just like you and the impact even a modest piece of legislation can have, you might be hooked. Who knows, maybe it will be you running for city council next time around!
Remember, more than 1,700 cats and dogs are killed every day in this country and they’re counting on you to be courageous and use your voice. But you don’t have to go it alone. You can become one of the local advocates working to make sustainable changes that save lives and connect with other passionate advocates in your community by joining the Best Friends Action Team.
Together, we can Save Them All.