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Brownie Troop Turns Lobbyists for a Day

The Humane Society of the United States

by Julie Hauserman

Tennessee’s state capitol building swarmed with powerful lobbyists and busy lawmakers earlier this month, but a group of pint-sized animal advocates stole the spotlight hands down.

That would be Brownie Troop 550 from Nashville.

This Brownie troop took on a mission to help regulate mass breeding operations in Tennessee.© The HSUS/Leighann McCollum
The 16 2nd grade girls came to support the puppy mill regulation bill sponsored by Rep. Janis Sontany (D-Nashville).They gathered in a designated hallway, where interest groups set up tables once a week, and offered legislators some of their famous Girl Scout cookies – along with a very serious message:

“Please stop the animal abuse that’s happening at the state’s unregulated ‘puppy mill’ breeding operations.”

Making Contact

Standing in a line for three hours, they held homemade posters saying “Even I Know Better,” “Dogs in Puppy Mills are Sad,” and “Protect Our Families from Puppy Mills.”

State Sen. Bill Ketron stops by to say hello to the girls.© McCollum
“The legislators would stop to shake their hands, and some of the girls were designated to speak to legislators,” said Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The Humane Society of the United States. “They had been practicing at home for two weeks.

“They introduced themselves and asked the lawmakers to please support the puppy mill bill,” she continued. “When the lawmaker asked why, they said ‘Because dogs in puppy mills are sad and they should have clean air to breathe and proper care.’”

Who could argue with that?

Effective Lobbyists

The day after the girls lobbied at the capitol against the cruelty of mass breeding operations, three state representatives signed on as co-sponsors to Rep. Sontany’s puppy mill regulation bill, McCollum said. Rep. Sontany was one of The HSUS Humane Legislator of the Year in 2008.

“They did a fantastic job,” McCollum said. “This shows that you’re never too young to have your voice heard.”

Their special legislative lobby day was one part of a “Brownie Quest” -- a troop activity designed to better the community by changing public policy.

When it came time to choose their Brownie Quest, the girls of Troop 550 knew one thing: they wanted to focus on helping animals.

Scout leader Renata Dash, a member of The HSUS, contacted McCollum for ideas. McCollum came to speak to the group and suggested that the girls might focus on the puppy mill bill.

The bill defines a commercial dog breeder as anyone who has 20 breeding females, requires minimum standards of care and housing, and requires inspection and licensing by the state’s agriculture department.

Preparing for the Big Day

The Brownies researched the issue of puppy mills and received literature from Mission: Humane, an HSUS youth program helping young people get actively involved in animal protection and providing resources for classroom teachers, animal sheltering professionals, and school clubs.

“We sent information to parents ahead of time to make sure they were okay with the girls working on the issue and going to the capitol,” McCollum said. “All the parents gave their blessing.”

At one troop meeting, Rep. Sontany visited and taught the Brownies how to shake hands, introduce themselves, and ask a legislator to support a bill. The girls learned the importance of follow-up: each is writing a letter to lawmakers to ask them to support the puppy mill bill.

Rep. Sontany thanks the girls for helping get support for the puppy mill bill.© McCollum
“I’m very proud that these young ladies took on this project, not only to advocate for animals, but to learn the importance of being involved in the legislative process,” Rep. Sontany said.

Misleading Advertising

The girls were interested in the consumer fraud angle of the puppy mill issue. They arrived at that decision after seeing cute pictures of seemingly healthy puppies for sale on the Internet or in pet shops—puppies most likely the product of puppy mills. Very often dogs from these operations end up with health problems – even death -- stemming from cramped conditions and poor care.

“Some of these girls have gone through the experience of buying a new puppy, bringing it home, and that puppy dying a few days later due to health problems,” McCollum said.

In addition to selling these dogs on the Internet or in pet shops, puppy mill operators also sell directly to the public through classified ads and other means.

Looking Ahead

Leaving no stone unturned, the Brownie troop also is working the grassroots. They are planning to give special puppy mill education presentations to all the classes – up to eighth grade -- in their school.

Learn more about puppy mills.