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Engaging in the legislative process doesn’t have to be scary

Nicky Ratliff explains how to affect positive policy change for companion animals

Nicky realized early in her career that she needed advocate for animals by affecting public policy.

With all the things a busy sheltering professional has on his or her plate, few are more important than making the time to influence public policy. You may be surprised at that, but here’s the thing: Public policy impacts your work every day. So who better than you to ensure your community’s policies best reflect the needs of your mission, the community and its animals?
I’ve found that many employees of nonprofit organizations assume that they cannot speak out or lobby their local governments or the state legislature. You most certainly can! There are some rules, but they are not going to stand in your way of advocating for animals, so long as you don’t spend more than 5 percent of your budget doing so (check with your tax advisor or the IRS website). Many of the public policies and laws that a sheltering professional can initiate, assist in developing and help to pass will not only help animals, they will lighten your organization’s workload. It is indeed time well spent.
If you are the head of a well-run humane organization, on their board of directors or simply an employee, you have a special opportunity to affect public policy in your community, and maybe even in your state. This is because Americans love their pets and animals in general. I can’t tell you how many times a legislator has said to me, “You have the largest built-in constituency of any other group,” and it’s true. Take advantage of this. If your organization or agency is well thought of in your community, you will be listened to. When an issue comes up that will affect animals in the way they are cared for, confined or treated, you need to speak out. YOU have a bully pulpit, YOU have members and they vote, YOU are recognized as an expert in your field. YOU have clout and YOU can encourage others to do the right thing. YOU also have social media which provides an opportunity to have many, many followers at your beck and call for action!
I realized early on that in order to have the best platform for animals, I needed to do more than just my immediate job as the executive director for the local humane society. I needed to get out and meet people and find out who the movers and shakers were, who got things done, who others listened to. I joined groups at the local and state levels and made friends with folks at The HSUS, ASPCA, AHA and NACA. These big national organizations were a lot of help to me with information, guidance, resources and testimony when needed.
I also joined groups like PAWs of Maryland, Inc., which is the state’s association of humane organizations and animal control agencies (and was privileged to be their president for 20-some odd years). I asked to be put on our local agriculture commission because I wanted to get to know the farming community and develop a dialogue with them. (When my term expired, I was asked to stay on as an ex-officio member.)
Our county commissioners hold a monthly round table with all the department heads and other partners, and I requested to join that group because we were acting as the county animal care and control authority. In Maryland, we have the Maryland Horse Council, and I joined that as well and became a member of the Equine Welfare Committee. Being a member of these various organizations gave me a platform and access to others with the same interests, so together we could effect change and make laws to help animals.
Without the help of others, change is slow and may not happen. I may have lit the match on numerous occasions but it took a fire (of many) to be noticed and to burn down longstanding walls of outdated opinions and beliefs.
Another terrific upside to getting involved in advocacy, one that will prove invaluable, is the contacts and friends you’ll make during the process. Those folks can be of enormous help to you in the future.
Here are a few of the changes I helped to make that I am most proud of:
●    In 1984, the humane society I worked for did not have the money to pay a veterinarian to spay or neuter our adoptable animals, and adoption contracts hadn’t been effective enough. Spay/neutering wasn’t as mainstream as it is today, and we knew we needed to push the envelope to achieve the kind of social change we wanted to see. To solve this issue, I had the county animal control law changed so that if the new owner failed to honor the adoption contract and have the surgery completed within a set amount of time, they could be fined $500 and possibly sent to jail for 30 days. As a result, over the ensuing years we routinely had a 97 percent + verified compliance rate. While this was spectacularly successful at the time, these days we also recognize the importance of public policy that helps pet owners keep and care for their pets—initiatives that provide free or reduced cost spay/neuter, for example, or that reduce or eliminate return-to-owner fees, especially for the first or second offense.  

  • In 1994, as president of our state association, I initiated and we passed our very first felony animal cruelty bill in Maryland. Many more have passed since.
  •  In 1996, while on the Maryland Horse Council’s Equine Welfare Committee we created a brochure, Guide to Minimum Standard of Care for Equines, which took the state’s cruelty and neglect law and applied its meaning to the care of equines. Animal control officers all over the state still hand this out to horse owners as a first step in correcting a neglect problem. It has since been used as a template in many other states.
  •  In 2006, I and others pressured our county commissioners to add a comprehensive proper outdoor dog shelter, care and protection standards section to our local ordinance. This had many requirements, including no chaining of dogs for longer than 12 hours during a 24 hour period, minimal kennel size standards, construction standards for a dog house and shade requirements in the warmer months.
  •  In 2006, after more than a decade of trying, we finally passed a state law outlawing the import, offer or transfer of dangerous animals, including but not limited to the possession of indigenous wildlife such as raccoons, foxes and poisonous snakes, large exotic/wild carnivores, all monkeys and apes, crossbred canines (domestic dogs bred with wild canines such as wolves or foxes) and felines (domestic cats bred with wild felines such as African servals or Asian leopard cats) over 30 pounds. Never give up!

The forty years I spent in working in animal care and control afforded me not only the satisfaction of sheltering, rescuing and adopting out wonderful animals while enforcing laws protecting them and the public. They also gave me the opportunity and the platform to be a part of creating many important and beneficial changes in the lives of the animals in my jurisdiction and beyond through legislation and policy. I encourage you to maximize the potential of your respected position as a sheltering or rescue professional by engaging with the legislative process to affect positive policy change for animals.
Are you currently involved in public policy? What changes have you helped effect? Has this blog inspired you to become more involved in public policy?

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About the Author

Carolyn “Nicky” Ratliff retired as Executive Director of the Humane Society of Carroll County after 32 years of service. Ms. Ratliff has been working in the field of animal control and welfare since 1973. Through the years Ms. Ratliff has influenced passage of numerous positive animal welfare laws and regulations. She was the President of her state’s association of animal control agencies and humane organizations—PAWS of Maryland—for 20 years and currently serves as its Treasurer. Ms. Ratliff also currently serves as an Advisory Board member of Days End Farm Horse Rescue.