Guest Column: Tagging Along on an HSUS ‘Lobby Day’

Dannielle Romeo is a professional dog handler and trainer, a regular HumaneWatch reader, and a real-live activist for animals—and we mean that in a good way. She breeds a line of Akitas (under the kennel name Black Knight) for conformation, companionship and working service dogs. That's her at right, along with "Koli."

She is is a columnist for several pet publications, and advocates for the rights of pet owners. She lives in Sacramento, California.

We asked Dannielle to describe her recent experience attending a Humane Society of the United States “lobby day” at the California State Capitol. This is what she wrote:

California Schemin': My Day With HSUS

I recently received an invitation to meet with Jennifer Fearing, the Humane Society of the Unites States’ head-honcho in California. She was diplomatic, but direct. Fearing expressed some interest in hearing what I had to say about conscientious breeding practices, and how to repair what she called a "disconnect" between HSUS and people like myself. But mostly, she didn’t appreciate my open criticism of HSUS and its programs, goals, and operations.

Fearing said she was genuinely interested in building an open dialogue, so I took her at her word.

I traveled to the state capitol on April 8 to see HSUS’s public education programs up close. HSUS had advertised a public “Lobby Day” and even promoted it with a press release, so I thought I’d show up. Considering how cordial Fearing had been just days before, I wasn’t expecting the gauntlet of not-so-welcoming HSUS event leaders that faced me when I arrived. Fearing herself had told me, "Don't believe everything you read on the internet." My only expectation was to learn if perhaps I have been too judgmental of this group and their programs. But there I was, looking up at the whole event staff, literally blocking the door.

First off, I never intended to join HSUS’s lobbying efforts. I figured I’d stay away from the afternoon rally outdoors. And I didn’t expect anyone to invite me to join in the vegetarian lunch. But was it so unreasonable to be a fly on the wall? Fearing had insisted in our meeting that HSUS’s messages and agenda are perfectly clear and in no way deceptive, deceitful, or misleading. I disagreed, but hey—how was I supposed to find out if I couldn’t see and hear for myself?

I did get in. Eventually. But only after declaring loudly that Jennifer Fearing herself had told me she wanted an open dialogue. I suppose her underlings would rather bite their tongues than make the boss look like a hypocrite.

HSUS Knows What It’s Doing

There are definitely things we can learn from HSUS. This organization knows how to leverage its human resources. I have never seen a more effectively run educational seminar. Activists learned how to seek out their representatives, speak with them, and be heard. A process that seems out of reach for mere mortals was coached in a very down to earth manner, using simple language. And HSUS had a host of prepared materials.

These people have large-group lobbying down to a science. The staff had already broken down appointments and drop-in opportunities by legislative districts, based on the zip codes people provided with their pre-registration. Literature packets included a “cheat sheet” on each attendee’s elected representative. I didn't receive one of these packets, of course, but it was explained during the program that they included party affiliation, a “score” the Member had been assigned on “humane” legislative issues, and how many HSUS members were supposedly in each one’s district. There were talking points on each of the four targeted issues.

(HSUS clearly has intelligent staffers, and they’re well-organized. Which is why the end result of all this effort is so disappointing and disturbing. Just because there are a few issues we can all agree on doesn’t mean we should all work together, or that HSUS should appoint itself the spokesgroup for average pet owners.)

Lobbying 101

The “lobbying techniques” portion of the day was a panel led by Jennifer Fearing, Nancy Perry (HSUS Government Relations VP) and Jill Buckley (Legislative Liaison, ASPCA). They identified four major items of interest:

  1. SJR22, a Ban on the Export of Horses for Slaughter (human consumption);
  2. AB1656, Truth in Fur Labeling;
  3. AB2012 Stopping Animal Neglect/Increasing Criminal Penalties; and
  4. a proposed plan by the California Department of Fish and Game to expand Black Bear hunting.

There was a ton of information that the crowd never saw. No one discussed whether or not there were already laws on the books to address these things. No one from HSUS or the ASPCA talked about how expensive it might be to comply with the new laws. And nobody tried to articulate—much less defeat—any arguments from the other side of these debates. You get the picture.

I’ve come to believe that HSUS's primary goal is to end animal agriculture—incrementally—through legislative processes, and by manipulating public opinion. I saw and heard nothing on April 8 that would make me change my mind. In fact, I came away more convinced of that than ever.

The Issues

SJR22 is actually a resolution aimed at a current item in Congress. Nancy Perry spoke at length about the need for support, claiming that there was "no causal effect" between the banning of horse slaughter and the increase in cases of abandoned and neglected animals. (No one on the panel was about to admit the awful unintended consequences of banning domestic horse slaughter in the first place.)

Perry’s stemwinder put heavy stress on her claim that SJR22 would stop horses from being sold at auction for slaughter, and would prevent long, stressful journeys across the country's borders to processing facilities whose standards we cannot control. But during a brief question and answer session, she conceded that the measure in no way stops any horses from being exported from the United States. A seller would only need to check off a box on a form at the border, saying that the animal was not headed for slaughter. (Who’s going to investigate whether anyone is lying?) People could also truthfully state that they’re transporting the horses for resale. It’s the buyer who will send the horses for slaughter, of course.

Once it became clear that the proposed law offers no guarantees, Nancy Perry re-directed the conversation. No one from HSUS or ASPCA offered the promise of any support services for horse owners or ranchers, to help them find new homes for their unwanted livestock. No one offered a way to provide these animals appropriate care until the end of their natural lives. An ineffective legislative roadblock, without a single visible detour.

The Truth In Fur Labeling Bill discussion was a little bit odd. HSUS is clearly only concerned about making sure every piece of fur trim on the planet is labeled so they can organize people not to buy them. This is a group that has been historically opposed to all fur in fashion. HSUS even has a program to donate old fur garments to wildlife programs—for animal use. (True to form, they don’t offer the coats to people, even in the dead of one of the worst winters in history.)

Organizers put five coats on display that they said were purchased during the last six months in local stores, all supposedly lacking an accurate label description of their fur content. Sales tags were left attached, which gave store names but not locations. Of the five coats, one was clearly created from leather, so the addition of a "genuine fur trim" label isn’t going to be the reason a vegan says “no sale.” Three others contained small bits of fur embellishment. I would think the marketers of these pieces would want you to know you’re getting real fur instead of a knock-off.

The fifth coat's tag (the one attached near the waistline) actually identified the trim as “raccoon fur” (in two languages!), but someone had used a black magic marker to cover up the writing on the tag (click to enlarge). 

Let me get this straight: This is the horrible injustice that HSUS needs a state law to fix? We'd be better off just banning black Sharpies in department stores (and HSUS offices).

Next up was a measure to increase criminal penalties for animal neglect. I think the “neglect” angle is often overlooked when animal services and law enforcement respond to single acts of cruelty. But this bill doesn’t define what would constitute neglect. Jill Buckley used words like "starved, "chained outside" and "hoarding cases." But it seems to me that neglect is in the eye of the interpreter. Could someone who has two animals more than a local ordinance allows be branded a “hoarder”? It already happens. Would that person wind up in the dragnet of increased criminal penalties? Who knows? Buckley claimed the bill would increase fines and jail time to the level of "similar crimes," and the other panelists agreed that it was "not too drastic." Oh, goodie.

Da’ Bears

The final issue was a state Department of Fish and Game proposal to increase the number of black bear hunting permits, increase the “take” numbers, and expand the list of allowable hunting methods. HSUS also held an outdoor rally about this issue.

Perry and Fearing presented materials stating that 1,700 bears are hunted annually in California, and that the new plan would allow “unlimited” permits and “unlimited” take numbers. They actually claimed the new rules would result in black bears going extinct.

Fearing claimed the Department's rationale was the "alleged overpopulation" of bears and that "we think they've failed to demonstrate compelling need, or that this decision would not negatively impact the species."  She didn’t have any documentation to support this claim. Answering one question from the crowd, Fearing claimed that black bears have never been endangered in California, but that she wasn’t familiar with the actual population counts.

HSUS seems unusually interested in the use of "expanded technology," including GPS locators for hunting dogs and "tip switches" (devices that send signals when a hunting dog has treed an animal). And I heard over and over that quotas for bears would be eliminated, and that packs of dogs would be released without supervision. Perry was quite vocal, shouting "50 percent more dead bears!" over and over. But she had no answer for a question about how many bears were actually killed in California in recent years.

Speaking from the rally podium, Fearing said that "high tech hunters can use global positioning collars and tip switches to hound bears to death … trophy hunters can climb back into their heated trucks [and] when bears are treed they can bring their rifles." I saw a group of children on the capitol lawn, obviously shaken by the shouts that black bears would be immediately "hounded to extinction.”

If HSUS actually wants some facts to bolster its bluster, here they are. (This information took me just a few minutes to find and confirm independently.)

In 2009, the "take" report number set by the Fish and Game Commission was 1,700 Black Bears. That number was reached on Dec 16, 2009, an event which immediately ended the season. The total take ended up being 1,900 bears, since it took time to relay the closure of the season to hunters in the field.

The total number of bear tags for 2009 was 24,724. (In 2008, 25,381 tags were issued.) There is no reason to believe that strict “take” limits won’t continue to be enforced. And it should be clear that only a tiny fraction of permit holders actually hunted a bear successfully.

A representative from Fish and Game has also confirmed that hunters cannot simply release hunting hounds without general supervision; they must also be responsible for them at all times. HSUS paints a made-up image of permit holders idly hanging out at their local Starbucks until a pager tells them to come shoot an animal. It's not just a misunderstanding. It's a work of fiction.

Lunchtime!

Boxed lunches, vegetarian meals pre-ordered by those who registered, came from Panera Bread. I actually wrote to Jennifer Fearing prior to the event about the vegetarian-only offerings. Here is her reply:

We are under no obligation and have never offered any sort of lunch option at previous Lobby Days. However, we wanted to make something available this year if it was helpful to people participating.  It’s a huge event and the only way I could provide this option was to provide ONE lunch option with no substitutions and no changes. Since a number of people participating definitely are vegan, it made the most sense to offer that option since everyone can obviously eat a vegan lunch and vegans cannot eat a non-vegan lunch. Further, there is nothing obligating anyone to buy this lunch… and in fact, most people have opted to get their own lunch or bring one.

Let me get this straight: Everyone had personalized name tags, individually made to include specific senate and assembly districts. HSUS showed incredible attention to detail, preparing each individual legislative packet with personalized information. But providing a check box for more than one type of sandwich was too daunting a task.

I spoke with Panera's catering people, and they informed me that groups of any size could order any item from their sandwich and salads menu for delivery to any location across the city. All they would have needed was a few hours’ notice for up to fifty people and 24 hours’ notice for larger events. And they tell me that HSUS isn’t anti-meat? Hmmph.

Canvas bags handed to each participant included copies of All Animals magazine (produced by HSUS). The articles are heavily infused with a vegetarian influence, praising people who have eliminated meat from their diets, and showcasing only recipes that contained no animal agriculture products. The "less meat is better" message is, on closer inspection, actually a purely vegan directive. Including for your pets. HSUS is now marketing its own brand of "premium” dog food—a completely vegan kibble that isn't even produced in the Unites States. It's imported from Uruguay.

A feature story promoting the new dog food states that “dogs in the wild don't limit themselves to animal protein.” Again, what HSUS leaves out tells the whole story: Dogs in the wild don't limit themselves to food sources derived entirely from plants either, which is what this new product forces them to do. “Don't believe everything you read on the internet,” Jennifer Fearing had told me. Including what shows up on the HSUS website. HSUS is clearly promoting an all-vegan world.

And the Sun Set on Sacramento

After spending an entire day observing HSUS’s tactics in action, I've come to the conclusion that HSUS’s leaders are the masters of contradicting what they say with what they do. HSUS representatives have graduated (with honors) from the smoke-and-mirrors school of public speaking. Their standard m.o. is to leave as much unsaid as possible, leaving themselves an exit strategy to in case someone actually “plays the tape forward” and figures out where they’re headed.

And why not? So far, it's been working for them. Now that the public is beginning to understand it, though, maybe that can change.

Posted on 04/19/2010 at 4:57 pm by humanewatch.

Topics: Fur & FashionGov't, Lobbying, PoliticsHorsesHunting & FishingPets

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