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There Ought to Be a Law . . . here’s how to get one passed here’s how to get one passed

You appear in front of the county council to beg for help in curbing the large influx of puppies and kittens at your shelter. A differential licensing law, you explain, would establish higher fees for unneutered animals and go a long way toward encouraging citizens to get their pets fixed.

You assume it’s a given that everyone will understand your point of view. How could they not? It just makes sense!

But you’ve barely finished your prepared speech before your less-than-impressed audience begins to pepper you with questions about where else such legislation has been proposed and whether you have any evidence of its effectiveness in other locales. When a local breeder stands up to complain that this will discriminate against responsible business owners, and other citizens start to chime in with worries of their own that you can’t easily refute, you fear you may have lost the case—and regret your lack of preparation for this onslaught.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most people learn the hard way that you can’t approach a government body and expect a positive response to pleas for assistance unless you’ve done your homework. And in the case of animal-related issues, that means doing even more homework than the average person; ultraprofessionalism and superthoroughness will help counteract society’s tendency to relegate animals to a lowly status and to stereotype their advocates as either cute or crazy.

What follows is a primer on how to get your community leaders to pay attention when you need them most. Adapted from The HSUS’s Guide to Cat Law, these tips include specifics on how to argue in favor of cat registration or sterilization ordinances; however, it’s easy to extrapolate the information for the passage of any kind of ordinance your organization might lobby for.

Documenting the Problems

Before presenting your case for an ordinance, you should document the related issues and problems that set you on this path toward legislation-lobbying. Here are suggested steps for researching the issue of cat identification; they can be adapted to topics such as dangerous dog controls or restraint laws as well.

1. Compile these statistics from your community’s shelters:

  • How many cats enter the shelters each year?
  • How many of those cats are stray, and how many have been surrendered?
  • How many stray cats entering the shelters are reclaimed by their owners?
  • How many cats are adopted?
  • How many cats are euthanized?

This information can support your case for the necessity of legislation. As an example, with few exceptions, the percentage of stray cats returned to their owners is abysmally low. Yet cats make up a high percentage of the animals entering shelters, and that percentage has been increasing steadily in some communities. One explanation is that unlike dogs, few cats wear any form of identification. A law requiring that cats be registered like their canine counterparts can increase the number of reunions among lost cats and owners.

2. Track the number and kinds of complaints that public and private shelters receive about cats. These can include general nuisance calls and reports of attacks on wildlife, destruction of property, and cats roaming at large. Registration laws will make it possible to hold cat owners accountable for problems caused by their cats.

3. Document all cases of neglect, cruelty, and injuries (including incidents involving cats being injured or killed by cars). These can be found in court and police records as well as in animal control files. Besides the obvious tragedy for the animal, there are public safety concerns regarding cats injured or killed by motor vehicles.

4. Document public health problems that relate to cats. Include diseases that are spread from cat to cat as well as those spread between cats and other animals. In the United States, there are more incidences of rabies in cats than in dogs. Cats allowed to roam freely are more likely to come in contact with rabid wildlife; making rabies vaccination a prerequisite for registration will help prevent the spread of disease.

Legislative Tips

Once you’ve gathered statistics and documented the problem, follow these tips to improve your odds of success:

Form a coalition. Legislators most often defer to veterinarians on animal-related issues, so make your case to local vets first. Seek endorsement from anyone else who will be better off if your ordinance passes; cat identification efforts should include cat welfare groups, cat breeders, wildlife advocates, law enforcement officials, chambers of commerce, civic associations, public health officials, and student groups. If you don’t already work with (or for) the agency that provides animal care and control services to your municipality, enlist its help as well. Those charged with enforcement power not only wield considerable influence with local council members but also are key to the long-term effectiveness of the law.

Neutralize potential opposition. If the bill may negatively affect a specific group, or even if someone just thinks the bill will have harmful ramifications, try to work out your differences early in the process. The more opposition you can defuse, the better your chances. If your powers of persuasion fail to change the minds of all your detractors, however, don’t wait until council members are taken by surprise. Preempt the opposition and prepare elected officials by presenting your counterarguments in advance.

Get help in drafting your ordinance. Although your objectives are probably very clear in your own mind, the language of the actual ordinance should be drafted by professionals. Enlist the expertise of a board member who is a lawyer or is associated with a law firm; the attorney who works for the city or county council might also provide assistance. Pro bono help from a local law firm is another possibility. Remember, too, that organizations like The HSUS serve as clearinghouses for sample ordinances from municipalities around the country and may be able to share model language with you.

Define your terms and cover your costs. A good ordinance includes definitions of unclear terms. Even the word “animal” can have many different meanings depending on how an ordinance defines it. And what exactly is meant by “animal shelter”—all public and private facilities? What is “proper restraint”? Assign meaning to vague language. Also, remember that costly initiatives too often fail before they ever get started, so try to create a program that covers its own expenses. In the case of cat licensing, it’s best if only cat owners foot the bill; funding generated in this way is referred to as a “user’s fee.”

Make exceptions if necessary. Consider whether you should exempt certain animals from your proposed legislation or make special exceptions for extenuating circumstances. A mandatory sterilization ordinance may reasonably exclude those cats who, in the opinion of a veterinarian, should not be neutered because of health issues. And a law requiring mandatory registration of cats could include special provisions for feral cat caretakers, either waiving their fees or allowing them to register an entire colony for one low price.

Find a sponsor. Approach animal-friendly council members who have sponsored similar ordinances in the past. If the bill must be heard by a committee, try to get someone on that committee to sponsor your bill. Get to know key elected officials and their aides, who can be influential and can provide you with important insight.

Don’t expect the ordinance to move on its own. As the legislative wheels turn, you will probably be called upon to provide additional information, lobby certain council members, alert supporters, and talk with the press. Contact newspapers and other media to explain why your proposed ordinance is important; write letters to the editor confirming your position to the community. Don’t assume reporters and editors will get good, fair information if you don’t supply it to them.

Choose a strong voice. If hearings are held, select a competent spokesperson to represent your cause. Relevant human interest stories are helpful, but testimony should be kept short. Make four or five clear points so listeners with short attention spans don’t drift off. Pack the room with your supporters; they can wear badges or carry signs of support. Avoid emotional appeals in favor of a fact-based presentation that outlines the benefits for all concerned.

Be polite and honest. The need to follow etiquette may go without saying, but sometimes people who feel strongly about an issue think that municipal bodies exist to be yelled at. You will set yourself apart from the crowd if you’re polite and honest. Don’t overwhelm elected officials with material; just provide them with the information they need. If you don’t know the answer to a question that a legislator or staff member asks, just say so and promise to follow up with the correct information as soon as possible. When council members view you as a reasonable person, they may be more willing to work with you in the future on another issue—whether they support you on this one or not.

Know when to compromise. Rarely does an ordinance become law without being amended. Sometimes you can include provisions knowing that they will be compromised away at a later date. Don’t be surprised if you can’t get all the provisions you want, but be prepared to make hard choices. In general, if the amended ordinance will still help animals without decreasing existing protections, it’s better to pass the lesser ordinance than to accomplish nothing at all. You can try again later to achieve your full agenda.

Consider a “sunset” provision. If you don’t think your ordinance will pass, make it more palatable to the movers and shakers by adding a provision that would limit its effect to a two-, three-, or five-year period. At the point of expiration, if the program has not been successful, it may be eliminated. If it has been successful, the city or county council may reauthorize it.

Draft a grandfather clause. In certain situations, grandfather clauses may be beneficial to your lobbying efforts, protecting your proposed ordinance from attacks by irate citizens. If you’re aiming to limit the number of animals per household to four, for example, be prepared to watch the fur fly unless you promise not to penalize people who already have three cats and two dogs. A grandfather clause allows these pet owners—and anyone else whose fourlegged family exceeds the specified limit— to keep their pets indefinitely, as long as they are registered. Over time, the numbers of animals per household will shrink until everyone eventually falls within the limits of the law.


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