When animals in Michigan are treated inhumanely, they cannot go to Lansing and tell their legislators about it; a person has to do it for them. That’s the idea behind Humane Lobby Day, a national event that gives citizen animal lovers a chance to put their compassion into action.
“Day in and day out, lobbyists for agriculture, dog breeding, and sport hunting and trapping lobby groups are making rounds in the halls of the legislature,” says Jill Fritz, Michigan senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, which sponsors Humane Lobby Day in 38 states this year. “They’re making sure the wishes of their clients are heard by legislators, and making it clear they are backed by a significant number of constituents or financial support that can make or break a campaign. The animals need a similar force at the Capitol on their behalf.”
This year’s Michigan Humane Lobby Day, which takes place from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. May 5, will focus on enacting registration and standards for large-scale dog breeding facilities — also known as puppy mills — and ending the use of gas chambers in animal shelters.
Attendees will have an opportunity to learn about these issues through a pre-event webinar and on the morning of the event when various speakers give detailed presentations about the issues and share tips about effective lobbying. The informational sessions are intended to prepare participants to meet with state representatives and senators from their respective districts in groups or alone, depending on how many people from each district attend.
“They’re not as intimidating as you might think,” says veteran animal advocate Holly Thoms, of talking with legislators. Thoms, founder and president of Voiceless-MI, a nonprofit that rescues companion animals and offers spay and neuter programs, says she felt “dead nervous” leading up to her first Humane Lobby Day.
“I had no idea what to expect,” she recalls. “I decided I was going to talk to a legislator so I made my appointment, and I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was so scared. And I quickly found out, after I got in there, that legislators are just like you and I.”
Thoms will speak at the 2015 event about the gas chamber legislation she’s been pursuing in recent years. “I’ll talk about who to contact, where to contact people and cover basic points of the bill to let people know how they can move this bill forward,” she says. “Anybody who walks in is definitely going to be of the mindset they want these gas chambers banned. There’s no opposition to this bill on record.”
Between the webinar and presentations, Fritz says attendees should feel confident going into a lawmaker’s office. Plus, she adds, legislators work for the citizens who vote them in and are there to listen to their concerns. “You don’t have to be an expert lobbyist or have memorized a long list of talking points,” she says. “What matters most is that you, a constituent, are letting your legislator know that animal protection is of primary importance to you, and you’d like him or her to vote accordingly.”
State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, another featured speaker — called “a champion for animals” by Thoms — says Humane Lobby Day is an effective way to raise awareness about animal abuse and cruelty.
“Whenever you have a bunch of people who represent different areas meet with their legislator, it has an impact and brings the issue to the forefront,” he says. “Even if it’s only for a couple of minutes that day, it causes people to think about these issues and maybe have to take some positions on things that may not be at the forefront of their own legislative agenda.”
Bieda, who thought about becoming a veterinarian and got into politics partly to help animals, is a longtime supporter of humane legislation dating back to 2002 when he was in the state house of representatives. He says although he doesn’t need to be swayed through lobbying, some legislators might. “Sometimes they’re interested in an issue but may not know exactly where to go for an idea, what the needs and demands are, or what shortfalls we have in laws,” he says. “So, it’s informative to all folks, not only to start legislation but to get ideas on what we need to do as a state.”
Fritz says Bieda was part of one of Michigan Humane Lobby Day’s biggest successes. In 2012, event participants presented Bieda and Sens. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, with the Humane Legislator Award for their sponsorship of a package of bills to toughen penalties for people who stage animal fights. They then lobbied their own legislators to support the bills, which were signed into law later that year.
“I think it was very encouraging and motivating for our Humane Lobby Day attendees to be a part of the passage of that historic legislation,” Fritz says.
People who want to participate but don’t want to meet with legislators may still benefit from Humane Lobby Day.
Thoms says there are many ways to help, all of which are covered at the event. “We talk about writing letters, emails and op-eds. We really cover everything from the person who wants to make a phone call to their legislator to the person who wants to sit down with a legislator and work from that angle,” she says. “So depending on how active you want to be, Lobby Day will have something for everyone.”
It is Thoms’ hope that people see Humane Lobby Day as their chance to be a voice for animals.
“It sounds a lot scarier than it is. It can actually be pretty fun, and you’re making a difference,” she says. “If you love animals and want to see change in the way things are running in the state of Michigan, it’s definitely good to be there.”