Editor's note: Geni Wren is editor of Bovine Veterinarian magazine, a sister publication of Pork magazine
Missouri Proposition B, also known as the “puppy mill” bill, passed by a narrow margin last week of 51.6% to 48.4%. The measure lost in 101 of the 114 Missouri counties. Sponsored largely by the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Prop B seeks to burden licensed dog breeders (who already operate within restrictive state laws) with more regulation that could put them out of business. It does nothing to address unlicensed dog breeders, and agriculture groups fear it is a foot-in-the-door of potential “domestic animal” regulation, which can also include livestock.
Missouri, however, is not done fighting. Some Republican lawmakers are seeking to overturn this vote with their legislative power. As a state law, the measure is subject to amendments, changes or outright repeal by the legislature.
I spoke with David Martosko, director of research for the Center of Consumer Freedom who offers some post-Prop B strategies for the animal industry of Missouri, which is also a roadmap for other states that may face similar propositions by HSUS. “I think the most important post-election education campaign has to be directed at the public, through the pet shelters that are going to absorb more than 100,000 ‘surplus’ dogs a year from now when Prop B comes into force,” Martosko says. “It’s not too late to make Missourians realize that they bought a pig in a poke. Laws can be repealed. But you’re going to have to generate sufficient (honest) outrage in order to see that happen.”
Martosko says a good place to start would be to sponsor advertising for a few high-profile Missouri pet shelters so the public hears the message that local humane societies are about to be overrun—and that HSUS, which spent $2.18 million creating a new problem, isn’t going to pony up enough money to deal with the consequences.
For states that are a target of HSUS, Martosko advises people to first not underestimate HSUS’s capacity to lie. “In Missouri, you had HSUS’s spokesperson in a radio interview accusing a veterinarian of being married to a puppy-mill operator,” he says. “It turned out that he was single.”
Secondly, don’t discount the value of third-party groups as message-carriers—especially when they can help you target a specific demographic where you’re lacking. “It’s important to let yourself share the messaging with allies (even those you may not always agree with).” It was heartening in Missouri to see livestock producers, veterinarians, dog breeders, horse owners and others come together against Prop B.
And lastly, says Martosko, understand that HSUS is always going to play the role of the aggressor in these campaigns, which means that it expects to moves the ball, set the pace of the action, and “own” the playing field. But you don’t have to let that happen, he says. “Trust in the fact that you have a good story to tell, and tell it loudly. Remember—most of the time agriculture is on the side of the angels. So the more the public discusses the issue (and even argues about it), the more likely it will be for the truth to percolate to the surface. In short, controversy is good. Public drop-down, drag-out fights are even better. If nothing else, realize that you have nothing to lose because you’re facing an opponent who will do anything—ethical or not—to win.”
There was some criticism that HSUS jumped into the fray early and that agriculture lagged behind in coordinating an united front in Missouri. Martosko says in cases like this, time is literally more valuable than money. “The best-case scenario is for agriculture to make HSUS’ Wayne Pacelle’s first impression for him,”suggests Martosko. A mini-campaign in Kansas City and St. Louis about what HSUS really is (a richer PETA) would have inoculated tens of thousands of voters—but only if it was carried out in May or June. Back then, the campaign was entirely winnable but no one in Missouri seemed to know it.”
Waiting until September and October is a recipe for disaster, he adds. “By that point in time, HSUS already owns the airwaves and you’re stuck playing defense. That’s what happened in Missouri. The only practical way to win these things is to play offense instead. That requires early action. It also has the virtue of being less expensive, since media costs a lot less to buy 6 months before an election than in the home-stretch.”
Other states better wake up and be prepared. Martosko believes Wayne Pacelle’s November 21 “town hall” meeting in Lincoln, Neb. is probably a prelude to a 2012 ballot campaign of some kind (visit the HSUS calendar). “Watch where he chooses to lay strategic groundwork with heavily staged dog-and-pony shows. Events like those are designed to generate media good-will exposure long before he needs a compliant base of reporters, but if he’s building the foundation you can bet he’s going to try to build something on top of it,” Martosko says.
Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Kay Johnson Smith says other states, in particular those that allow for the ballot initiative process, need to be proactive now and not wait until a similar initiative to Prop B has been introduced in their state. Twenty-four states allow for the initiative process, but regardless, it’s important to make decision makers aware of the dangers of this type of initiative or legislation.
Johnson’s recommendations for other states include:
a) Find out if your state does allow ballot initiatives. “If so, understand the rules, such as what number of signatures are required, what percentage of votes are necessary, and talk with your legislature about possible changes to the statutes could be made to protect agriculture’s interests,” Johnson says.
b) Join or form a state agricultural coalition and get active in working together now – before an initiative is proposed. Look for non-traditional allies.
c) Talk with your legislators now about the dangers of any initiative which sets an arbitrary limit on the number of animals an owner can own – like Prop B. Also help them understand that today, it’s the number of dogs a legitimate dog breeder can own; tomorrow, it will be cattle or chickens or pigs. Assigning an arbitrary number, like 50 in the case of Prop B, hurts good businesses and does nothing to eliminate those that are sub-standard.
“The ballot initiatives regarding dogs are just the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent for HSUS which uses this type of campaign to raise money, build a database of potential supporters and strengthen its presence in the state,” Johnson says. “Its next campaign is likely one that would make legitimate farmers and ranchers, using the best practices known to-date, illegal – all because the activist group rejects the right of consumers to eat meat, milk and eggs.”
For more information on HSUS, visit www.humanewatch.org