A model dog law to save more lives

By Ledy Vankavage

We’ve all heard our share of lawyer jokes. Heck, some of us have even been known to crack them every once in a while. (We could fill multiple blog posts with some of our favorites.) And while it’s fun to poke fun, I think we feel comfortable telling them, in part because deep down a lot of us are apprehensive about lawyers and the legal profession. And I say that as a lawyer myself.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always “felt the love” when it comes to municipal lawyers. For a long time, I viewed them as obstacles to overcome when it came to saving cats and dogs. A lot of us in the animal welfare movement shared this feeling, especially in the early days when the concept of no-kill wasn’t at the forefront of our culture like it is today. Back then, many communities thought the idea of saving them all was an affront and a direct challenge to their shelters and animal control officers.

We’ve worked tirelessly for a long time to show that our movement didn’t have to be adversarial toward municipal shelters, and I’m beyond proud of the progress we’ve made. Today, we count municipalities across the country as some of our closest partners in lifesaving. Simply put, ending the killing in shelters cannot and will not be accomplished without working collaboratively toward a shared vision. This represents a paradigm shift that is helping us to reach our goal of a no-kill nation by 2025.

Over time, as these barriers began to break down and as the stakeholders began viewing each other more as partners than adversaries, I started rethinking my feelings about municipal lawyers as well. As we worked throughout the country to impact policies and laws that would save our pets, I started to see the key role that these lawyers have to play in the process.

Town, city and county attorneys are often some of the most instrumental voices in how a community treats its people, not to mention its animals. They not only write the laws, rules and policies that govern us and our shelters, but elected officials oftentimes look to their attorneys for guidance on shaping policy and setting priorities. In a lot of places, the municipal attorney serves as a key gatekeeper to the community and a trusted (and needed) voice to effect change.

Now, let’s be real for a moment. I’ll be the first to admit that this shift in attitude was a little harder for me to adapt to than others. It was really hard to divorce myself from some of my long-held ideas about these lawyers and their work. The idea of embracing municipal attorneys and seeing their potential impact in saving lives was challenging.

It took a long time and a lot of personal experiences for me to come around. Eventually I got there and came to see the importance of these stakeholders in getting a community to embrace the concept of no-kill and the path to getting and staying there. Now, on any given day, I’m as likely to be on the phone with a city attorney as I am with a shelter director or elected official. Sometimes I even enjoy the calls!

And this brings me to the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA). The IMLA is the preeminent voice for municipal attorneys from across the United States and Canada. The organization represents and speaks on behalf of thousands of these key stakeholders, thus playing an enormous role in shaping policy at the local level, where so much of our work takes place.

One of the services that the IMLA provides its members is access to model ordinances that serve as templates for attorneys to utilize when drafting laws for their communities. They have model ordinances on all sorts of subjects affecting their members, and until very recently they had an outdated model dangerous-dog ordinance that included breed-discriminatory pit-bull provisions.

Knowing the role that municipal lawyers play in the work we do and knowing how influential IMLA is in shaping these debates, it was clear that something needed to change. So, without a trace of irony, I hired some lawyers of my own (I know, I know).

The attorneys on our advocacy team worked with the IMLA to update the model ordinance and to remove the breed-discriminatory language. In essence, they worked to make the model reflect the most modern and effective approach to regulating dogs available.

From the beginning, the goal was to promulgate a model ordinance that would promote public safety. Since we do this type of work all around the country, we know the formula for reaching this goal: a breed-neutral law that focuses on the behavior of every dog and owner in the community.

As you can imagine, when a group of lawyers get together to work on something, it can take a bit longer than you might expect to get a finished product (insert bad lawyer joke here). But, as the expression goes, if you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right.

So it was with great excitement that the IMLA recently unveiled its new model dangerous-dog ordinance. It’s a complete rewrite of the previous version and accomplishes all of our shared goals: a public safety first, breed-neutral approach that focuses on the behavior of every dog and owner. Exactly the right approach that every community should take.

The new model is already having an impact. When it was rolled out with great fanfare at the recent IMLA annual conference in Houston, Texas, there were upwards of 800 municipal attorneys at the conference and many of them took home copies to use in their communities. As we’ve done in recent years, Best Friends was an exhibitor, ready and willing to answer any questions that came up about the model or anything else related to what we do. We also hosted a reception to tout the new model and show our commitment to this work.

I was particularly happy when I heard what Chuck Thompson, the executive director and general counsel of the IMLA, said about the new model: “Discriminating against a family because of the type of dog they love runs counter to the values we most cherish in our country: freedom and personal responsibility. In fact, this was one of the driving forces behind the new IMLA Model Dangerous Dog Ordinance.”

The fact that Chuck and his fellow municipal lawyers get it — that all dogs are individuals — speaks volumes about how far we’ve come as a movement. The notion of the IMLA, or any organization like it, embracing key provisions of the “no-kill playbook” would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

And while Best Friends will continue to play a big role in shaping policies across the country, without a doubt our movement’s greatest strength is you: your passion and the voice you use to speak on behalf of our cats and dogs.

If you haven’t done it already, I urge you to sign up for the Best Friends advocacy alerts. These are one of the key tools we are using to Save Them All.

As always, we are here, fired up and ready to do the work and build relationships with the key stakeholders we need to get our country to no-kill by 2025. Working with an influential organization like the IMLA is integral to this effort and we’re proud to call them a partner.

So, cheers to the municipal lawyers and the IMLA for this exciting news.

Now, if you’ll indulge me, did you hear the one about the lawyer and the dog who walk into a bar?


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society