For much of this week, I’ll be in Daytona Beach, Florida, for The HSUS’s Animal Care Expo, the nation’s biggest animal protection conference. Leaders and advocates from across the nation will come together to accomplish many good things, not the least of which is to participate in seminars and exchanges about best practices and innovations in carrying out our work, and generally to further professionalism in our field. We’ll have some major announcements to unveil at the event, including an exciting new component of our anti-puppy-mill campaign, thanks to a major grant from Maddie’s Fund.
But one thing I’ll ask every individual in attendance to think about is to become more actively involved in our HSUS grassroots network. It’s the same thing I ask of you today – please consider getting involved more deeply and meaningfully.
The many people at Expo will be there to represent a wide variety of organizations. But no matter which group you associate with the most, every one of us is part of one movement – the movement to protect all animals in our society.
We all have a stake in seeing clear lines drawn in making acts of animal cruelty a crime, at the local, state and federal level. Indeed, earlier this year, South Dakota became the 50th state to establish felony-level penalties for malicious cruelty – a milestone for our movement. No longer is malicious cruelty treated as a minor offense, dealt with by a slap on the wrist.
But there are other forms of cruelty that are not encompassed by these state anti-cruelty statutes. That’s why we have separate and distinct laws to criminalize dogfighting, cockfighting, horse soring, captive hunts, ban private ownership of large wild animals as pets, and many more unacceptable activities. These laws are critical in our broader fight to stamp out cruelty and reckless treatment of all animals.
In the last 10 years, we’ve helped to pass about 1,000 laws at the state level to upgrade protections for animals or to set up funds or structures to do more animal protection work. But that task must continue because there are still big gaps in the law.
Lawmaking is not simply a process of making a logical argument and hoping that legislators accede to the request. We are in a struggle, with animal fighters, factory farmers, bear baiters, horse slaughterers, and so many others offering a different set of social, cultural, and political narratives and perspectives. In such a competition between different parties contesting ideas about animals, it’s about science and logic, but it’s also about power and organization.
The fact is, we have adversaries – people who run businesses or engage in certain forms of recreation –who want to retain the status quo and who want to protect their right to harm animals. To win, we have to organize. In fact, we have to out-organize our adversaries.
The HSUS already has professional staff in all the states, we now have state councils in 22 states, and it’s our goal to have 50 state councils within 18 months. By this time next year, we also want to have 435 District Leaders – one leader for every congressional district in the country.
These District Leaders will engage in ongoing legislative advocacy at the federal, state and local levels, and they will work with dozens of other volunteers in their district to drive awareness among lawmakers and the general public concerning critical animal protection issues. They will also assist The HSUS in growing the movement through membership recruitment and fundraising. They will promote concern for farm animals and “eating with conscience.” And very importantly, they will partner with local shelters, wildlife rehabilitation centers and other animal welfare groups to bring greater focus to the critical issues they’ll be working on.
District leaders will work with HSUS staff to tailor the program to their community. Some of the activities they might engage in include helping a local school district join Meatless Monday; co-hosting a World Spay Day event with a local shelter; participating in their state’s Humane Lobby Day; or working with neighbors and communities to create more wildlife-friendly backyards.
It’s a lot to do as a volunteer, but so many people I run into ask me, “Wayne, how can I help? How can I get more involved in helping animals?”
Well, here’s one way – apply to become a District Leader volunteer. The HSUS’ Grassroots Outreach staff will interview you and make sure you’re trained and prepared, so that we can take animal protection to the next plane of policy-making and awareness-raising. One of the great benefits of the program, as our current District Leaders would say, is that it helps connect you with like-minded advocates all over the country. If thousands of people get involved in their communities, as I sincerely hope they will, our movement will be better and stronger than ever, and we’ll see tangible outcomes for animals that will usher in a new era of animal protection in our nation.