Making 2014 The Year of Advocacy For Animals

posted January 25th, 2014 by
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Advocacy

by Ruth Steinberger

On a miserably cold night last week, a plea for help came from a resident of a neighboring county.

Tulsa temperatures were expected to dip below 5 degrees that night. The desperate caller described a donkey that had been tethered to a tree for over a week and was about to spend another night braying out loud in apparent and severe discomfort.

I reached a frazzled sounding dispatcher who reluctantly reached a deputy for me. Thankfully, the deputy quickly got to the location, and according to anxious witnesses down the road, the donkey was immediately taken inside a barn. The owners obviously understood that the donkey was protected under the law, and a call history in the sheriff ’s logs now flags that location in case of future calls.

Animal cruelty is a crime, and law enforcement agencies are the ones who can step in to stop it. In his 2006 acceptance speech at the ASPCA Henry Bergh Award luncheon, former Chicago Police Officer Steve Brownstein noted that certain behaviors went from being treated as undesirable mischief to serious crimes in just a few decades due to public advocacy; he emphasized that animal cruelty was not one of the behaviors that was successfully challenged.

Brownstein pointed out that in 1960, intoxication was accepted as a “reason” for a fatal car crash, domestic violence was considered a private matter, child abuse was still two years away from being described for the first time in a mainstream medical publication, and animal cruelty was considered silliness.

Drunk driving, domestic violence and child abuse were catapulted to the forefront by advocates who demanded the offenses be criminalized and that a public infrastructure become available to care for the victims.

Animal cruelty still lags way behind other crimes in terms of response and prosecution; despite record levels of animal welfare awareness, many rural prosecutors have still never prosecuted a single cruelty case, dispatchers often do not know what to tell callers who are frantically trying to report cruelty, many cases that are reported are never investigated and organized animal cruelty, including dog fighting and the use of animals in pornography, are on the rise.

Throughout much of the Midwest, there are no shelters available to house an animal if a sheriff ’s office needs emergency placement for a cruelty victim. In fact, despite being a felony, an incident of animal cruelty or neglect that is reported, investigated and successfully prosecuted to the extent of the law is the exception, not the rule.

Brownstein’s point was that animal cruelty continues to be treated differently and therefore, less effectively, than other crimes. The problem is not a lack of compassion by officers, nor is it a lack of concern by the public; the problem is a quagmire of misinformation that inadvertently lets public agencies off the hook and leaves animals out in the cold.

A combination of understaffed law enforcement agencies and a seriously undereducated public leave animals suffering. Until public demand and emergency responders are all on the same page, it will remain that way.

We do not donate to private anti-crime organizations and, in turn, expect them to investigate murders. We report crimes to the police, and we expect them to act.

Animal cruelty became the purview of those who were socially opposed to it in the 1800s. Today, despite enormous public concern for animals in distress, the diversion away from municipal agencies continues.

Many people think they should report cruelty to a local humane society, a belief that is fostered by fundraising campaigns that promise to address cruelty by having viewers respond to pictures of injured pets by sending money across the nation.

Convicted dog fighter Michael Vick was jailed due to federal laws that were successfully lobbied by national animal advocacy organizations not long before his arrest. However, while national lobbying efforts indeed strengthen federal animal protection laws, stopping cruelty within our own community is absolutely a local affair that is driven by residents with the power to elect someone good to office or throw someone bad out.

Until local and state leaders view animal cruelty as a voters’ issue, the response to it will continue to be the luck of the draw. Make a 2014 commitment to speak for the animals with your vote, your voice, your purchasing power and your presence at the courthouse during a trial.

Create a letter writing tree to send a flurry of postcards to officials and letters to editors. Develop a phone tree to support animal welfare legislation during the 2014 legislative session. Ten cards or letters may be 10 more than an official has ever received.

Present an animal-friendly force at a council meeting. Every single time a candidate asks for your vote, ask for his or her sense of urgency about enforcement of animal welfare laws. If they do not care about animal cruelty, they do not deserve your vote. Shop cruelty free, especially boycotting products from China and Korea, where dogs, cats and other animals are horrifically tortured before being killed to be eaten.

Create a “red T-shirt” anti-cruelty brigade, a group of animal advocates who attend court hearings. The red Tshirts tell the courtroom you are there, that you support the prosecutor and care about what happens.

By having a group of people who commit to being available, the responsibility doesn’t fall to the same few again and again. Follow the case all the way through; don’t have four or five red shirts at just the first hearing and then vanish. Empty benches tell the judge and prosecutor that we don’t care quite enough to stay on it.

The presence of those who care absolutely makes a difference. At the end of the case, publicly thank the agencies that worked hard to bring the case to court. As animal advocates, we are the family of the four-legged victim who was dragged behind a truck, ignited by gang members, starved in a cold garage or hoarded like trash. We are the family of the victim.

The story of the donkey that was moved inside a barn on that freezing night did not end there. It was followed up by a call to the sheriff of that county to thank him for the deputy’s response. A letter went to the local newspaper, thanking the sheriff publicly as well.

Local voters are the only ones who can make the point about animal cruelty to our local elected officials… we need to do so.

If we have to stand up for hours at a hearing or protest by sitting down on the courthouse steps, animal cruelty will be vigorously prosecuted—but only when we, as local voters, refuse to tolerate cruelty one minute more. 

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