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Meet seven incredible animal advocates, disguised as average citizens, who are changing the world

All Animals magazine, November/December 2015

by Karen E. Lange

Tom Krepitch feeds a resident at the Backyard Barnyard Foundation in Arizona. Krepitch helps protect farm animals through advocacy. Photo by Mark Peterman/AP Images for The HSUS

Acouple of years after earning an MBA, Krepitch began his evolution into an activist. Unsatisfied with his career as a cable company financial analyst, he started studying animal law at night. In February 2012, he attended Humane Lobby Day in Phoenix. Krepitch and about 100 other HSUS members fanned out across the Arizona state capitol to visit legislators. It was then that he discovered that his voice mattered. “I was expecting them to grill me,” he says. “It turns out on some of the issues, you have to educate them. They see so many bills, they can’t possibly be an expert on all of them.”

Krepitch began to take action often. He emailed and wrote and called and visited representatives’ offices. He became one of the 30 or so “core” activists whom HSUS state director Kellye Pinkleton says she depends on. Call them super advocates. They’re the people who make The HSUS a reality across the country, an influential organization with grass roots in every state.

After HB 2150 was introduced this past spring, Krepitch’s letter to the editor opposing the bill ran in the state’s largest circulation newspaper, the Arizona Republic. But as Pinkleton, at the time an HSUS consultant, and HSUS staff, along with volunteers and members, pushed for the bill’s defeat, the proposed law passed the Arizona House and then the Senate. HB 2150 awaited only the governor’s signature.

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The last hope for stopping the bill was a veto. It would be among Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s first since he was elected in 2014—and it would mean going against the wishes of fellow party members, who control both sides of the legislature in Arizona.

Opponents of the bill rallied in Tempe. What really caught the governor’s attention, however, was the number of people who contacted his office directly, asking him to veto it. Krepitch and a handful of others made an appointment to meet with a member of the governor’s staff. Some activists phoned. Others sent emails—11,000, more than the governor had received about the state budget. In all, 19,251 people contacted Ducey about HB 2150. All but three were against the bill.

Krepitch had just pulled into a parking spot when he saw the hoped-for yet still unexpected news on Facebook: Ducey had vetoed the bill. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. Amazing!” says Krepitch. “Even people who were closest to him were surprised.”

Pinkleton was in one of the capitol buildings when she heard the news and rushed outside so she could cheer. The victory, she says, came not because of the work of paid lobbyists, but because of volunteer activists—especially the most committed of them, like Krepitch.

“Our opponents have a lot of resources—trust me. These are powerful associations down at our capitol,” she says. But you should “never underestimate the collective power of people who care about animals. You can’t pay for the impact that has.”

The most devoted volunteers are not a particular age or gender or personality type—Krepitch, for example, is quiet, unassuming and the only male district leader in Arizona. What super advocates share is an unflagging inspiration, a willingness to give of their time and more. To put themselves out there, in words and in person, acting on passionately held beliefs whether they are popular or not, whether or not their efforts result in immediate change. A capacity to hope and to keep on hoping. A seeming inability to become discouraged.

For them the reward is not in the victory that may come, but in the doing itself: To be able to act on behalf of animals and live out their values.

In-person visits to lawmakers or their staff are most effective. Phone calls come next, followed by letters and emails. Letters and emails that are individualized, rather than simply following a form, get more attention. But even the tiniest action—a few clicks to send a pre-written message—can have an impact if enough people take it.

These are the findings of a study by the Congressional Management Foundation, which surveyed legislators’ staffs on Capitol Hill. It makes no difference what medium constituents choose to communicate with their representatives, says Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the foundation. What matters is the content.

Rather than regurgitating a long list of arguments, Fitch advises activists to establish themselves as constituents (meaning potential voters in an elected official’s district), make it clear how they want the representative to vote and then give a simple, brief argument in support of what they are asking for, perhaps sharing a personal anecdote. “They should not get angry,” he says. “They should not use a lot of exclamation points. They should not type in caps.”

They should identify themselves as members of The HSUS. When a person says they belong to a larger group, legislators take note, Fitch says, because it means the view that person expresses may be shared by hundreds or thousands of others.

Though people need not be registered to vote to contact their representatives, voting can be the most powerful way to effect change. The HSUS failed in its effort to block a 2014 “Right to Farm” ballot initiative in Missouri by fewer than 2,500 votes, says Andi Bernat, HSUS director of legislation and public policy. At that time, there were more than 25,000 HSUS members in Missouri who were not registered to vote. If even 10 percent had cast ballots, the initiative may have been defeated.

Perhaps out of apathy, perhaps because they do not believe any action they take will matter, many U.S. residents don’t vote. Even fewer contact their representatives. That gives those individuals who do an outsize influence. At the state level, there are bills about which legislators hear nothing from their constituents. So even five or 10 people can sway a representative.

  • “I’m just one big whirling mass of activism,” says Maryland advocate Heidi Osterman. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS

Heidi Osterman

This realization, brought about by a trip or two to her state capital, energized HSUS member Heidi Osterman, a Maryland resident who happens to live conveniently close to both Annapolis and Washington, D.C. From January through March, when the Maryland legislature is in session, she routinely visits the state capital, just 40 minutes away. The rest of the year, she heads to the nation’s capital. Osterman sends legislators information about bills and issues, whether or not they’re related to animals. When lawmakers do support animal welfare bills, she thanks them privately and publicly, tweeting her gratitude.

This year, Osterman visited the office of her congressman, Rep. John Sarbanes, again and again. Sarbanes ended up signing on as cosponsor of five animal protection bills: the Prevent Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, the Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, the Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors (AWARE) Act, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act and the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act. Maryland state director Emily Hovermale is pretty sure Osterman was a big part of the reason why. Osterman’s never been happier.

“I love animals so much,” she says. “[Now] I have an organization—a strong organization—behind me, so I can do what I’ve always wanted.”

  • Bryan and Carla Wilson (center) fight for animals on a variety of fronts. Photo by Alex Menendez/AP Images for The HSUS

Bryan and Carla Wilson

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you lose, at least in the short term. That hasn’t discouraged Bryan and Carla Wilson, two HSUS district leaders who live in Orlando, Florida. The couple is among the majority of Florida residents who opposed the state’s proposal to reopen a black bear hunt.

A poll showed that 61 percent of state residents were against lifting the 21-year ban on hunting black bears. Seventy-five percent of the people who contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission opposed reinstating the bear hunt. And an HSUS anti-hunting petition submitted to Gov. Rick Scott carried 95,000 signatures. In contrast, the response from hunt supporters was weak—they dropped their argument that it was needed to prevent bear attacks on humans (the most effective way to do that is to properly dispose of garbage, not kill random bears) and talked vaguely about the need for “population control.”

The Wilsons took to highway overpasses, unfurling a homemade banner. “TELL FWC NO BEAR HUNT!” read the words spray-painted on a white sheet they hung above Interstate 4.

Still, the commission approved a weeklong hunting season, allowing the killing of up to 320 bears—around 10 percent of the state’s estimated population of 3,000. The Wilsons remain undeterred. They became activists early in their 21-year marriage when they realized that rescuing greyhounds was not enough to stop the cruelties of dog racing. And so they demonstrate tirelessly, against the greyhound industry and against SeaWorld’s exploitation of orcas. For eight summers, every Fourth of July, Bryan has chained himself to a doghouse in a park to win local bans on dog tethering (the protest helped persuade Seminole County to pass one). The couple is in Tallahassee for nearly every Humane Lobby Day. “Every call matters, even if you just get their aide,” says Carla. “Every call you make, you’re being a voice for the animals.”

This past summer, as bear hunters began buying permits, the Wilsons were planning to protest in downtown Orlando on October 23, the day before the hunt’s start. “We know we can win because we’ve won before—that’s what keeps us going,” says Bryan. “We’re going to win because we’re not going to quit.”

  • Though she lives far from her state capital, Cynthia Anne makes sure her lawmakers know where she stands on animal issues. Photo by Stephanie Rau-Barber/AP Images for The HSUS

Cynthia Anne

A volunteer in Wisconsin is also persevering in her fight to help animals, despite obstacles. On the front line of a battle to block a factory farm, Cynthia does not want her last name used—she says someone has already exposed her contact information and threatened her.

Cynthia lives in the northwestern corner of the state, five and a half hours by car from the capital of Madison. When she attended her first Humane Lobby Day this year, as a new HSUS district leader, she was the only one there from her district to visit her state senator and representative. Never mind that, or that she was new to talking to politicians’ staffs, or that she had not previously believed in the power of signing petitions or sending emails. She spoke her mind. “Cynthia was incredibly articulate and persuasive,” says Wisconsin state director Melissa Tedrowe. “She’s fearless. She jumps in whenever and wherever she’s needed.”

Cynthia is the face of The HSUS in an area where the organization would otherwise be unheard and unseen. Her congressman, Sean Duffy, is a sportsman who supports renewed wolf hunting and cosponsored a bill that would again remove wolves from the endangered species list. But that didn’t keep Cynthia from having a chat with one of his aides about keeping wolves protected.

Cynthia has joined other Bayfield County residents in opposing a big pork producer moving into the county, upstream from Lake Superior. Most residents are worried about the estimated 6 million gallons of manure that would be generated by a facility holding up to 26,000 pigs at any one time. They fear their drinking water will be contaminated. Cynthia reminds folks that animals will suffer, especially the 7,500 sows confined in gestation crates.

Last August, Cynthia and another activist stood behind a table at the Bayfield County Fair offering passersby $1 to view a four-minute video on factory farming. Almost as soon as they set up, a sheriff’s deputy came over and asked that they not make trouble. People whispered and gave them nasty looks. Several farmers stormed up to the table. “You people have no business being here,” yelled one. “This is a 4-H community!”

But Cynthia got respectful visits from her state representative, county supervisors and small local farmers. Curious passersby stopped to talk. Around 20 of those watched the whole video (the 21st, a woman who stopped after a minute because she couldn’t stand seeing animals in misery, gave back her dollar and made a donation).

Cynthia moved to this rural part of Wisconsin from San Francisco to experience again the natural beauty she remembered from childhood visits to her grandparents’ house. So much had changed, though. In the woods, she stumbled upon a fur farm keeping foxes penned outside in the freezing cold and hunters training dogs in licensed facilities to run down bear, wolves and raccoons. She felt isolated, angry, scared. The conviction that change is possible allows her to stay.

“I was so depressed,” she says of the days before she met Tedrowe. “I was seriously thinking of moving out of the state. [But] I kind of decided not to be afraid anymore. Just to pick up the phone was a relief. They need to hear from us, collectively and often.”

  • HSUS volunteer district leader Cecilia Gray protested Amendment 1—Missouri’s misleadingly named “Right to Farm” initiative. Photo by Jan Miller

Cecilia Gray

Missouri advocate Cecilia Gray balances caring for a 10-month-old baby with her activism. The new mom says she’s emerged from a period of focusing first on school and then her job. Now she wants to look beyond herself. “I try to do just one small thing a day.”

An HSUS district leader, she sends letter after letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She follows the news and writes to companies about issues like selling fur. She calls Costco to ask the company to phase out battery cage eggs from its stores. And she visits her representatives: She goes to Congresswoman Ann Wagner’s office every six months to discuss animal welfare issues. Gray spoke with Wagner herself on the first visit. Since then, she has only spoken to aides, but that doesn’t discourage her. “I go just to go and let her know that there are people who do care and remind her that we’re here.”

A similar approach worked with Senator Claire McCaskill, who does not usually sign on to legislation she hasn’t worked on. After several visits from Gray, McCaskill cosponsored the federal PAST Act, aimed at preventing the abuse of show horses.

  • “I’m just an average citizen, so anyone else who feels fueled can do the same,” says Annoula Wylderich. Photo by Mingo Morvin Photography

Annoula Wylderich

Annoula Wylderich, of Nevada, became an activist during a period of profound sorrow. Grieving for her fiancé, who died of lung cancer, she happened upon an article about a small dog killed in an oven. Unable to stop thinking about the dog’s terror, Wylderich resolved to do whatever she could to stop such suffering.

Wylderich writes scores of letters: to legislators, publications and celebrities such as Richard Branson. She visits her state and federal representatives’ offices carrying fact sheets and photos of animals hurt or killed in traps. She says she can always find some common ground—most members of their staffs have pets. Recently, she met with Congresswoman Dina Titus, a cosponsor of the Humane Cosmetics Act and the PAST Act.

“I let her know that she is one of those who ‘get it,’ because animal protection is the number one emerging social justice cause of the 21st century,” Wylderich says. Titus’ legislative aide told Wylderich that when they have pet events on Capitol Hill, people from all parties get on board.

Beyond the legislative visits, Wylderich makes hundreds of calls, participating in phone banks. She helped arrange for The HSUS to train law enforcement officers in Las Vegas, and she’s helping The HSUS launch Meatless Mondays in the Clark County school system.

“When we mobilize our efforts and contact our representatives or companies that we patronize, we are letting them know on a grand scale how we feel,” says Wylderich. “We shouldn’t assume that they know.”

Want to help but short on time?

You don’t have to make a major time commitment to have a big impact. Sign up for email or mobile alerts and take quick actions on your phone or computer. Combined with thousands, even hundreds of thousands of other advocates, your “clicktivism” can bring about change.

Californian Alice Lin Seamans is among The HSUS top action takers in response to email and text message alerts. She started out just surfing the web, signing up for alerts. Now she takes at least one action every day, whether signing a petition or making a call. She can fit it into her regular schedule.

“I care about [animals] a lot, and this is my small way of giving back,” she says. “I will do it as often as I possibly can. I always find time to support things that are close to my heart.”

Sign up for HSUS email alerts and text SPEAKOUT to 30644 to take action for animals right from your phone. *message and data rates may apply.

 Learn more about volunteer opportunities with The HSUS, including open district leader positions.

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