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What Happens After You Sign a Petition Anyway?

Three animal rights attorneys on what it takes to ban puppy mills and other ways to get involved in animal advocacy.

by Madeleine Aggeler
April 27, 2022
A woman with a dog on her lap sitting at a desk with a laptop.
STUDIO TAURUS / Stocksy

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If you look up the term “dogs” on the popular petition website http://change.org today, you’ll find just over 15,160 results. You could sign a petition to ban medical testing on dogs in Virginia, to stop the slaughter of wolves in Idaho, and to protect the street dogs of Turkey. If you were particularly moved by the cause in question, you might share the petition on social media and urge your friends to sign it as well. For many of us, this is where our animal advocacy work ends. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As Lauren Loney, the Texas State Director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) explains, online petitions are “one way for you to add your voice in a collective, organized way.”

How Petitions Help Get Bills Passed

But petitions are only the beginning. What happens after a group or individual has collected a bunch of signatures? What does it actually take to get a bill passed to protect pets by banning puppy mills, chaining dogs up outside in extreme heat or cold, discriminating against them based on breed? The frustrating answer to these questions, as with so many other public policy questions, is: it depends. “It’s hard even for me sometimes to figure out what the process is in a city, and I do this professionally,” Loney admits, laughing. 

The process varies from city to city and state to state, and inevitably involves navigating complex, tangled webs of legal and bureaucratic requirements. Take laws that ban puppy mills — commercial breeding facilities that minimize animal care and safety in order maximize profit. Loney and other animal advocacy experts I spoke to unanimously agreed that this was one of the most pressing issues today. For those interested in banning puppy mills in their city, Loney says, there are usually two routes one could take:

In smaller towns, one could go directly to their city council member or testify at a city council meeting. Bigger city governments sometimes have animal advisory commissions, which act as citizen advisors to the city. A puppy ban ordinance could pass through that commission, which would then take the proposed ordinance to city staff, who will draft their own ordinance, and then present that to the city council — which will take the measure through its own approval process.

If your eyes are crossing in confusion at this point, that’s understandable. Here’s a compilation video of puppies and kittens who are best friends if you need a quick break. 

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How Pet Parents Can Get Involved

Are you back? Great. If you’re interested in getting more involved in animal advocacy in your area, don’t let the opacity of the process dissuade you. As Loney and others noted, most animal rights organizations and local shelters will be able to tell you what issues they’re already working on, and offer guidance and support for how to help. “You have to talk to a lot of people and ask a lot of questions,” Loney explains. For example, if you’re going to testify in front of your city council, figure out how long you’re allowed to speak. Do you have three minutes? Five? Knowing these details can go a long way towards adding legitimacy to your campaign, and making sure it gets taken seriously by the city government. 

Kathryn Kopanke, the Senior Outreach Manager of Legislative Engagement at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) said they help volunteers engage at all levels of government: local, state, and federal. “We train government relations volunteers so they can have successful legislator meetings,” she says. 

Established organizations can also assist you in collecting information that will make your case more compelling to a government official. Say you live in a city that doesn’t have a puppy mill-supporting pet store in it yet, but you want to pass an ordinance to prevent one from ever opening; Loney said it would probably be helpful to collect information on how many puppy stores have opened in nearby communities, and what the documented issues with those have been. “Unless you happen to have a city council member who is already a well-versed advocate on these kinds of animal issues, they’re going to need some support from you as the person asking to pass the ordinance.”

Now, How to Enforce Those New Laws

Getting a bill passed is one thing, though. Making sure that law gets enforced is another, according to Christopher Berry, the managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). For example, the 2019 retail pet sale ban in California — which aimed to crack down on puppy mills by prohibiting the sale of dogs, cats, and rabbits unless animals were acquired from a shelter — was a huge victory for animal rights activists. No sooner did it go into effect, though, than puppy mills found a workaround. As Berry explains, some puppy mills created sham rescue groups to effectively launder the dogs they sold. In response, the ALDF later filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the people who bought the puppy mill puppies believing they were rescues. 

Further complicating the issue is the fact that animals in the U.S. don’t have legal standing, meaning that the justice system doesn’t see animals as having legal interests that are capable of being represented. In order for an animal cruelty case to be brought before a court, therefore, legal advocates have to find a person or a corporation who has been harmed by an act of animal cruelty, and bring a case in their name — the owners in the puppy mill class action for instance. 

If You See Something, Say Something

While it’s more complicated to support litigation efforts, there are some ways. “If you see animal cruelty or something that seems like it’s illegal, blow the whistle on it,” says Berry. And donate to animal advocacy groups if you can. “Obviously animals don’t pay their own legal bills.”

No matter how you choose to get involved in animal advocacy efforts, remember to keep it as professional as possible. Loney acknowledges that a lot of animal advocates feel passionate about the issues they’re campaigning for, and that while there is a time and place for more aggressive outreach, “being personally aggressive toward city council members — which happens quite a lot — is not only not a key to success, but it’s often detrimental to the overall campaign.” 

Getting animal protection laws passed can take time (anywhere from three months to multiple years) and usually that’s not the result of villainous, animal-hating city government officials, but of bureaucratic gridlock. “There’s a misconception that if it doesn’t happen right away, it’s not going to happen,” Loney says. “And the truth is that engaging in things like this is not going to be an overnight project.”

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Madeleine Aggeler

Madeleine Aggeler is a freelance journalist and copywriter in Austin, Texas. Previously, she was a writer at New York magazine’s The Cut. She lives with her dog, Cleo, who works primarily as a foot warmer.