The annual Taking Action for Animals Conference, organized by the Humane Society of the United States with the Humane Society Legislative Fund and other supportive organizations, concluded today with hundreds of participants lobbying their members of Congress on Capitol Hill and discussing important animal protection matters with them and their staff members. During the four days of the conference, which began July 20th, animal advocates from around the nation came together to get a better understanding of animal protection issues, and to strengthen their skill sets and ability to help animals through lobbying, outreach, education and other forms of citizen advocacy and engagement at the local, state and federal levels. On Saturday I addressed these amazing folks, who are making a difference for animals every day, at the conference’s welcome session. Here are some excerpts from my speech.
This is a particularly intense time for our country. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, we can all agree that societal discourse is increasingly divisive and increasingly polarized. And change is needed.
It seems almost every day there is more turmoil – lives lost at a mass shooting. Children separated from their parents at the border. Contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings.
In this climate, you might be asking yourself – how do I maintain the energy and strength needed to keep fighting for animals, amidst all the other important fights taking place? How can we be even more effective on our issues – issues of decency and compassion? How do we convince people – friends, neighbors, lawmakers – to care about animals and take action?
I would like to share four activism strategies we can use.
First of all, seize the moment.
A hard reality of our work—and one we are all trying to change—is that animal protection is not necessarily a top of mind issue for people. So we must be prepared to take action when our story hits the front page.
Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is a clear example of an animal crisis – as well as a human crisis – that captured the world’s attention. And it’s also an example of the enormous strides that can be made if we seize these moments and leverage them into positive change.
Post-Katrina, millions of dollars of aid flooded into the area to help rebuild and support area shelters—and, more than that, to create new lifesaving programs that elevated animal welfare in the entire region. Just months after Katrina, a new federal law was passed mandating the inclusion of pets in disaster plans. A tragic situation sparked a campaign that has forever changed the landscape for animals, and their people.
Moments like these illustrate when we are at our best. They represent a recognition of who we want to be as a society, and a chance to move together in that direction.
Secondly, we are experiencing a rebirth of activism.
Advocates are waking up to their own power. They believe they can make a difference.
This rebirth of activism is so apparent here, living in D.C. There are demonstrations and marches happening almost every weekend. My husband and my 16-year-old daughter have attended many of them. I remember one Saturday morning they rode off on their bikes to pick up some poster board and markers to make some signs but were gone for hours. They ended up having to bike all the way to Maryland because all the stores closest to our house were sold out. That’s how big of a rebirth in activism we are seeing – stores in D.C. can’t stock enough poster board.
The animal protection community can harness this societal energy. We will have the chance to hear from strategic leaders on the forefront of political campaigns. Experienced lawmakers at the state and federal level will give us insights into making change through the legislative system. Communications experts will provide training on messaging and digital media. And more. Learning from the best, we can apply these tools in our fight for all animals.
My third point is that sometimes our success is measured by whether we can simply hold the line.
I’m sure many of you have experience with this kind of fight. For me, our decades-long fight to protect dolphins is a clear reminder that we can never let our guard down.
My advocacy for animals began in elementary school going to anti-fur rallies with my mom and writing school reports about the need to protect animals. My mom still has most of these reports. I also wrote letters to tuna companies calling on them to stop the slaughter of dolphins by tuna fishing boats.
For decades, millions of dolphins were needlessly killed by the tuna industry.
Schools of tuna frequently swim beneath large schools of dolphins. Huge, football field-sized nets were dropped over dolphins and when the nets were hauled in millions of dolphins were drowned and crushed and their bodies were tossed back into the sea. The airing of this footage was the moment that ignited a campaign to protect dolphins. A massive consumer boycott pushed U.S. companies to adopt the “dolphin-safe” label.
When I started working for the Humane Society of the United States 26 years ago, I became professionally involved in this campaign on Capitol Hill, and then internationally. After the initial outcry, we have seen many ups and downs, and long periods where the best we could do was hold the line.
The fight to protect dolphins isn’t over and continues to this day. We are using all the tools and venues available to us – lobbying for pro-dolphin policies in Congress and before agencies, utilizing the U.S. court systems, and eventually making our case at the World Trade Organization.
While it can be disheartening to face these kinds of challenges, victories that involve simply holding the line are every bit as important and worth celebrating.
Finally, we must never give up.
We must be creative and strategic, using every tool in our toolbox, and occasionally creating new ones.
Sometimes we suffer setbacks, which can be demoralizing. We have seen progress being rolled back on a few fronts over the last months. A notable example is our work on trophy hunting of animals like elephants and lions. We made progress on this issue under the Obama administration when the Fish and Wildlife Service recognized trophy hunting as a threat to imperiled species. We had fought for years to protect lions under the Endangered Species Act. And shortly after the world was stunned by the death of Cecil the Lion, we finally succeeded.
Unfortunately, we have seen a backward slide on these policies under this administration.
The Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course and ended a blanket ban on the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
But we – and others working on this issue, maybe some of you – are not giving up. We are filing lawsuits, challenging the agency’s decisions wherever we can. We are pressing for anti-trophy hunting legislation in Congress, and we are taking the fight to the states—and internationally. This kind of advocacy can be tiring. But we must stay with it. The stakes are high. There will always be threats to progress. But with every generation, there is a whole new group of people wanting to help animals.
Activism counteracts a feeling of helplessness in the face of what may seem to be insurmountable challenges.
We can seize the moment. By being ready for the right news article, or the right undercover investigation, or the right lawmaker we can create victories for animals.
Activism means hearing about something. Being upset about it. And THEN pivoting to do something about it.
Activism is knowing how to engage the system and having the tools to effectively argue for change. This leads to empowerment. This is how we hold the line.
People often ask me how I do what I do. And, how have I done it for so long. Whether it gets depressing or disheartening. And you know, honestly, it doesn’t.
I think that’s because I am fully engaged, like you. I hear about progress every day. Just in the last week, we celebrated the enactment of a new law in Rhode Island phasing out the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens. A victory which, a decade ago, might have seemed impossible.
I see YOUR progress every day. The progress made by volunteers and advocates all across the country and the world. And I know we are all in this fight together. We’re not giving up.