A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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This morning I was entertaining myself by reading through the comments on a blog piece in which I was quoted.  The blog was about a Philadelphia companion animal shelter which was facing the threatened picketing of one of its big annual fundraisers by another group which promotes veganism because the fundraiser did not feature a vegan menu.  My quote had nothing to do with the menu; it was from a blog I wrote that was self-congratulatory on behalf of animal welfare groups for working together to draw the brakes on the recent House Resolution 89, which had the potential to roll back the 2008 Puppy Mill Law. 

I won’t say a word about what I think about the vegan conflict.  Since that is a topic which is guaranteed to piss everyone off, no matter what position one takes, I’ll save that for a time when my hate mail is at particularly low ebb.  But one commenter on the blog, among other niceties, referred to me as “among the most pugilistic” in animal welfare.  That cracked my up, in no small part to it being the most polite insult I have received in ages.  On a second reflection it occurred to me that “Anne Jones” had used precisely the right word for me. 

I have always been self-reflective about my discourse on animal welfare since I have been very vocal about the importance of civil debate, yet I have with regularity excoriated those in opposition to my positions.  More than once I have debated those who find fault with the, admittedly fine, lines with which I define my own fairness doctrine.  Occasionally, I’ve even been reasonably called on stepping over my own lines.  When I have, I’ve very publicly done something few of those who I disagree with ever seem to do- I’ve apologized and corrected myself. 

However, “pugilism” is the perfect descriptor for the lines I have drawn for the speech I engage in on behalf of my positions.  Pugilism, or boxing, is separated from a bar fight in one important way.  It has rules.  It’s still brutal and damaging and it’s not unheard of to place a well landed punch that is literally fatal to your opponent.  But it’s not a bar fight.

Boxing is stepping into a ring with an opponent, agreeing to the rules of the match, tapping gloves, waiting in your corner until the bell rings, and trying to beat the other guy unconscious- as long as the shots are above the belt and you don’t tangle him up in the ropes.  In a bar fight, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask, “Can I buy you a drink?” and hit the other guy with a beer bottle before he has time to think.  The loser may be just as unconscious but one way is fair, the other isn’t, and fairness is important to me.  I’ll gladly get into the ring and try to beat your brains in.  But I won’t bite your ear off and I’ll shake your hand when the final bell rings, win or lose.

That’s why tone and language is so important.  It is the difference between a sucker punch and stepping into the ring. With a little humor, it makes the difference between the British Parliament and a cable news commentary panel.  “Anne” could have called me a jackass who loves to pick fights.  That could very well be true at times and may be a fair comment.  She chose pugilist.  That’s just as fair but it prevented me from writing it off as a mere insult since it showed some thought.  Someone else made a comment about whining, half-dead looking vegans.  Now, that seems a bit harsh.  There must have been a better way to put that and thesauri are so handy these days.

What I do find unfair is when I hear that because I preach a pointed civility, I am not allowed to engage in my narrowly defined pugilism.  Apparently, in some bar fighters’ eyes, only a pacifist can call out the bar fighter for dirty fighting.  I beg to differ.  Even Mahatma Gandhi (you know him, the guy every animal person quotes) saw that there were gradients of behavior and some were worse than others.  “Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes.”

I think I would prefer never have to step into the ring with those in opposition to what I believe about animal welfare, especially those who are far closer to my side than I ever am to the true opposition.  But I also think that those who engage in name calling, sucker punch, beer bottle smashing efforts to get what they want often go after the targets who don’t see it coming.  They deflect engaged discourse by standing fast on the faith of their argument.  It doesn’t matter if it’s politics, dog tethering, veganism, or beating your kids.  For so many true believers the entire argument comes down to you being wrong because I believe you are.  Gandhi also said, “Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind, it dies.”

I’ll climb into the ring with anyone.  Just don’t offer to buy me any drinks.

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The animal welfare community just experienced a clear and sometimes rare example of success.  In the Pennsylvania House a small group of suspect sponsors, with the enthusiastic support of that bastion of animal welfare support, the AKC, introduced House Resolution 89.  It used groundless, completely unsupported and inflammatory language to call into question the effectiveness and desirability of full implementation of the 2008 Puppy Mill Law. 

Normally, this may have slipped under the radar.  Or, if it was noticed, animal welfare advocates would have reenacted that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where all the different liberation groups decided who was the most right and attacked one another, while accomplishing nothing (profanity warning on this very funny link)

Not this time.  HR 89 was quickly spotted, was promptly shared, animal welfare advocates across the spectrum swiftly reached agreement that we did not like what we saw, and we all went berserk at the same time in the same direction.  A coalition of the willing unleashed canine shock and awe.  Within days the sponsors were spinning in their boots, offering new excuses and new claims daily, before finally having their resolution stall in committee while facing an omnibus revision offered by their own leadership. 

Now that is how you get something done.  Just ask the NRA, the Tea Party, the AARP or any other highly effective lobbying group.  Find your target, define your message, stay on message, and hack at it until it is dead.  Then pour salt on it for good measure so the offenders think long and hard before trying that approach again. 

All too often we are not effective at getting what we want or, just as importantly in politics, at stopping what we oppose, because we fight and bicker over who is allowed to speak for our side, who is most credible, or who knows best.  Too often we will put more time into undermining those on our own side at the expense of the issue all of us on our side agree on.  We treat degrees of difference as if they are orders of magnitude. 

In the case of HR 89, there was definitely a difference of opinion over whether it represented a political stunt by local Reps to assuage their rural base or was a Trojan horse intended to gut the dog law.  This time we all decided, why take the chance?  

We all called on our friends to join together to place calls and emails to our own elected officials and to party leadership.  Our people (mostly) did it respectfully and politely, making it far harder for politicians to blow us off as nuts from outside their districts who just post crazy comments in all caps on their Facebook pages.  We did not let them slide when they started making ridiculous claims about what was clearly written in HR 89 and turned their own words back at them. 

And we prevailed as a group.  For once, we managed not to cut off our noses to spite our faces. 

But we can’t let it go to our heads.  HR 89 is stalled, not dead.  There will be other revisions offered to the dog law, some will even be good, and they will crack the door ever so slightly for the addition of this little change here and that little change there.  We must be vigilant.  And when we see something we all think is a problem for animal welfare, we need to show Harrisburg that the highly effective response to HR 89 was not a one shot deal. 

And don’t forget to go to Harrisburg for Lobby Day on April 12!  Put a smiling, steely eyed face, nose and all, in front of your Representative and Senator!

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A funny thing happened in Harrisburg this month.  A few majority legislators introduced a resolution filled to the brim with unsubstantiated “facts”, specific calls to “refine” a wildly popular law, and a call for a “study” of the impact of this law.  Twenty years ago, ten, five even, this House Resolution would have flown right by.  But this year, legislators are discovering that there is a new furry third rail in Pennsylvania politics: dogs.

Gordon  Denlinger  (Republican)The Prime Sponsor of HR 89, Rep. Gordon Denlinger, represents Lancaster County, widely considered to be the epicenter of cruelty by puppy farmers in their previously woefully poorly regulated puppy mills.  He is joined by others who either opposed the 2008 Puppy Mill law to the bitter end or those who fought it tooth and nail in committee, tried to kill it through death by a thousand cuts and amendments, and then heroically vote “Yea” for when it became clear that it would pass by unprecedented numbers in the PA House and Senate among Democrats and Republicans.

Despite their protests to the contrary, and many felt they doth protest their innocence too much, HR 89 was clearly an effort to, at best, impotently assuage their puppy mill lobby supporters by showing they could be tough on dogs or, at worst, at attempt to reopen the amended Dog Law in order to weaken it, roll it back, or hold it hostage for tax credits for those who can only make a profit by tormenting dogs.  Animal welfare advocates saw it, newspaper editorial boards saw it, legislators who fought for the 2008 Dog Law saw it and, ultimately, even their own party leadership saw it.

In response to an avalanche of negative feedback from constituents, the sponsors of HR 89 changed their tactics from boldly attempting to drive their resolution through to claiming that it did not call for what it explicitly called for (those pesky words again) to trying to turn the tables and asking, “Gosh, who’s afraid of a little study?”, as if that was the issue.

However, people who care about animals in Pennsylvania, who worked hard to get the Puppy Mill Law passed in 2008, and who have been ignored for decades by their “representatives” in Harrisburg, have learned a lesson from their experiences and from their more politically deft friends in the NRA and Agriculture lobby.  We learned that an attack on the laws we believe in, no matter how supposedly innocuous or inconsequential, needs to be responded to swiftly, powerfully and with unanimity.  Canine shock and awe.

We are not stupid, we know how to read and we know how to read between the lines.  HR 89 was a pile of dog crap.  Claiming there was nothing to fear from an independent study sponsored by puppy mill apologists is like a prosecutor telling an innocent man not worry about going to trial without a defense lawyer because he’s sure to get a fair jury.  Would you risk your life or freedom on that?  The sponsors had presupposed a litany of offenses in HR 89.  These sponsors weren’t asking if the Puppy Mill Law was guilty of something, they were asking how guilty it was.

Now here is the funny thing that happened.  The session closed yesterday with HR 89 stalled and an omnibus amendment, an amendment which nearly entirely replaced the text of the original HR 89, being offered by John Maher, the majority head of the Ag Committee to be considering it.  Oh, snap!  We’ve always said animal welfare was not a partisan issue.  There are good, bad and indifferent on both sides of the aisle.  It just so happens that Rep. Maher was quite proud of the 2008 Puppy Mill Law he helped to pass.

We asked him why, if this HR 89 was so innocent, were there only a few pro-breeder sponsors, why did it make unsupported negative claims only, why did it specifically include a call for “reconsidering” implementation, why was it being fast tracked, why was it being considered before the law was even fully implemented, why didn’t it call for questioning why wire floors are still allowed and blanket exemptions and delays were given by the BDLE to kennels?  He answered, “Why, indeed?” and he returned with a gutting of the very resolution which so many of us felt was intended to start the gutting of the Puppy Mill Law.

In Harrisburg, a response like that is a rare and beautiful thing.

cruety-dog-2I will diverge from many on this issue by declaring that I do not fear a truly independent study on the 2008 law.  In fact, I believe that the blanket exemptions given kennels and the decisions to allow breeders to keep dogs on wire floors without access to exercise are a travesty and circumvention of legislative intent which would be exposed by a review.  I called for the termination of a study based on a biased and surreptitious HR 89 and asked it to be completely revised and re-introduced with true bi-partisan sponsorship we can believe in.  Prime Sponsor Denlinger is correct.  There is nothing to fear from a fair study.  But that’s not what he and his kennel posse were calling for.

It is what John Maher is calling for and I’d like answers to a few of my questions about the mishandling of implementation of the Puppy Mill Law and enforcement.  Questions like why are dogs are still on wire floors when the law is explicit that this is not permitted?  Why were kennels not collecting sales tax for years without intervention by the State and how many are still in violation of the law?  How many kennels are in violation of local zoning ordinances and State and Federal labor laws? Why does the State, through its “agriculture” promotion arm, the Department of Agriculture, continue to prop up an industry which now seems to claim it can only make money through the abuse of dogs and the circumvention and violation of PA law and the will of the voters?  And why would we give tax breaks to people whose prior deplorable business practices are now criminal business practices?

Is it safer to leave the whole matter closed?  Without a doubt.  Do I love every word in the new amendment?  No.  But when the leaders of the very party of the people who tried to get a crummy resolution through intervene, drastically alter it, and challenge us to take puppy mill apologists and the pro-cruelty lobby on head to head, I believe we should do exactly that.  We have a lesson to teach here.  I’d like to make it an unforgettable one.

Denlinger wanted his answers.  Now I want mine.  I am encouraging the support of the Maher Amendment to HR 89.  And we should all be watching very, very carefully to make sure they stay far, far away from our furry third rail.

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Two days ago the First Amendment was strengthened and reality in political discourse was thrown out the window.  In an 8 to 1, bi-partisan (isn’t it funny that we need to say that about the Supreme Court?) decision, the US Supreme Court upheld the right of that repulsive church pastor to “protest” at military funerals.  The Court reaffirmed that our First Amendment is only relevant when we uphold it against the speech we hate, and we don’t get to pick and choose which speech is protected just because we find some of it loathsome.

Unfortunately, some people view the First Amendment a bit like miscegenation.  They’re all for it unless it involves their daughter.  But the most conservative and the most liberal on the court recognized that allowing restrictions in this case, as it did in the animal abuse videos case in equally lopsided fashion, would open the gates to other restrictions.  We have already seen increasing efforts to make everything from filming factory farm abuses to police making arrests in public illegal.  Oprah Winfrey was famously sued for simply giving her opinion on hamburger.  Silencing this nasty little man might feel good to us, but suing or arresting me for calling a specific commercial breeder a puppy mill might just make someone else feel good, too.  Whether we like them or not, words and opinions are our own, they matter, and they must be protected except in the most extreme cases of direct and profound harm.

However, someone (everyone) once said, you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.  As this Supreme Court decision was being handed down, legislators in Harrisburg began a new attempt to divert the rapid public outcry over House Resolution 89 which calls for a study of the impact of 2008′s Puppy Mill law.  This “study”, sponsored by six Representatives of a single party, including several who actively worked kill the bill so it would never become law in the first place, presupposes a wide variety of unsupported facts.  When this unsubstantiation is brought up, it is used as the very reason to justify the study.  “Mr. Jones, just how long have you been beating your wife…?”  One would hope an honest call for a study would simply say, “We’d like to study the impact of the Dog Law”.  It would also be nice if there was actually even one co-sponsor who supported the original law if it was truly intended by the sponsors to be an open minded study.  Further, the law, passed by 96.6% of House and Senate legislators, Republican and Democrat, still has not gone into full effect.  Isn’t that like a critic reviewing a movie which they walked out on at the intermission?  But these are minor points.

The slip into Orwellian Newspeak comes when these sponsors say, as did Representative Denlinger, prime sponsor of HR 89, “Please understand that HR89 does not represent any effort by me to re-open [my bold] the PA Dog Law statute, or to weaken dog treatment standards in any way.”  Even if we could get past the nagging concerns I previously listed, a simple read of the long list of unsubstantiated “Whereases” in HR 89 turns up two explicit lines:  ”amendments to the Dog Law which might be desirable refinements” and “amendments to the commercial kennel canine health regulatory standards adopted under the act of October 9, 2008 (P.L.1450, No.119), which might be desirable refinements”.

If HR 89 is not an effort to re-open the Dog Law or regulations, why does it state clearly that this is the intent of HR 89?  Twice!

Unfortunately, despite the public outcry, HR 89 passed 19 to 5.  Rumors then began to swirl that it would be brought to the House floor for a vote almost immediately.  Berks County Representative Caltagirone couldn’t get a bill he sponsored which said you couldn’t drive a pipe down a dog’s throat to debark it for two years, but this could go from introduction to committee vote to House vote in a week? We can probably thank all those who contacted House Speaker Mike Turzai for his subsequent statement through a spokesmen that there were no immediate plans to bring it up for a vote.

To be fair, some who supported HR 89 believe a study into the impact of the Puppy Mill law will make a case for the success and need of the law and dismiss the language that has originated the call for the study.  In fact, the new Majority Chair of the Ag Committee, John Maher, was among the strongest supporters of the Puppy Mill bill and worked within his own party when they were in the minority to ensure passage by an overwhelming majority.  He speaks passionately about his concerns for animal welfare and pride in what this law did to improve the quality of life in commercial kennels.  I have the sense that he believes that an impartial study will only shine a light on how much good the new law has done and will do if allowed to be fully implemented and I’m not sure I don’t agree with him on that.  He also strikes me as someone who would allow a weakening of the dog law over his dead body.

Unfortunately, those of us in animal welfare have been witness to the corpses of great politicians who opened the door a crack for the right reasons and were trampled under the weight of less their less principled colleagues and political expediency.

That is why we must go back to the words on paper, the words that define HR 89.  The words that clearly intend that this study support a pre-determined outcome, one which has already determined a guilty verdict by judges who never liked the defendant in the first place.  An honest jury can’t function in a rigged court.  That is why I respectfully continue to call for HR 89 to be allowed to die on the vine, never reaching a house vote, and if it should, be voted down soundly.  If there is truly a need for a study, wait until after the law has been fully implemented and start from a place of intellectual honesty that does not require a dismissal of the actual words written into this resolution.

Ignorance is not freedom.  War is not peace.  Opinion is not fact.  And calling for amendments to the Dog Law while denying that’s what you are doing is not truthful.

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