If a simple conversation could help spare the lives of thousands of animals, would you start it? That’s what Julie Knopp asks new animal advocates who want to change their communities. The answer, she says, is almost always an emphatic yes. Two years ago, Knopp said yes to her own opportunity—and persuaded elementary schools in her district to implement Meatless Mondays, saving thousands of animals each year.
Knopp is one of countless people around the country using her voice to help animals. In these profiles, you’ll read about four advocates making change in their own backyards. While some of their projects required more than a single conversation, all four advocates had a powerful ally as they spoke at city council meetings and met with food service directors: The Humane Society of the United States. Read on to learn how HSUS staff and resources gave these advocates the tools they needed to make a difference—and how you can get started in your own hometown. We can’t wait to hear what you’re up to.
Tools for change
You’ve got the will—but what else do you need for a successful advocacy effort?
Naysayers often accuse animal advocates of basing their arguments on emotion rather than reason, says Kozil. So when she presented her case to ban exotic animal acts, she kept it factual. “I put together a very detailed, professional-looking binder,” she says. It explained “why banning circuses not only is a progressive and ethical choice, it’s also a choice that doesn’t directly financially impact the community.” The approach paid off: Not only did the circus ban pass unanimously, but the county commissioner praised Kozil’s professionalism.
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers; HSUS experts can help find them. “Try to let go of that fear. You just have to be the one who’s willing to be present and on the ground,” says Kozil.
While it’s tempting to fire off an email to your elected officials demanding change today, developing a strategy is crucial. “Attempt to understand the scope of the problem in your community,” says McCarthey. Identify weaknesses in existing legislation and present your case in terms lawmakers care about: things like public safety, taxpayer money and links to crime, says McCarthey. She made the case for an anti-tethering ordinance on those terms—not just the cruelty inherent in keeping dogs chained, unattended, for hours. And HSUS law enforcement outreach director Ashley Mauceri helped McCarthey think through potential roadblocks so she could address them.
It also pays to research the opposition. Kozil knew a local business that exploited tigers would fight the circus ordinance, so she went on the offensive. “I took the air out of their balloon from the very beginning,” she says. “I provided my commissioner with all of the facts about the citations they have that are outrageous and horrible, and the fallacies in their claim that they’re a sanctuary.”
A few years ago, Opahle contacted Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources to protest the state’s decision to allow a gray wolf hunting, trapping and hounding season. She never got a response. “I kind of felt like my voice didn’t matter,” she says. This time, with the HSUS providing guidance, she had the confidence to keep fighting.
“You have to be willing to knock and then knock again and knock again,” says Kozil. And sometimes, you need to open the door yourself. Kozil took action by visiting her county commissioner’s office. “I had 30 seconds with her,” she says, but it was enough. Kozil connected with the commissioner by mentioning their shared interest in Guatemala, where the commissioner had volunteered and where Kozil’s daughter, Quila, was born. After the brief encounter, Kozil was granted a longer meeting.
A while back, Kozil approached her city to enact an exotic animal ban but couldn’t make headway. “If the timing isn’t right, the door is closed,” she says. In 2018, with a new county commissioner and recent circus protests in Portland, the timing was right, and the ban passed.
Sometimes cultural trends set the scene for change. The popularity of plant-based eating meant that when Knopp approached her school district’s food service director in 2017, she barely had to explain what plant-based meals were. “It seemed like the food service director had kind of already been primed for this conversation,” she says. “If I had said this a year before, she might have said ‘No, what’s that?’ ”
While you can’t control broader cultural shifts, you can time your efforts strategically. McCarthey approached city council members while they were up for re-election. “A lawmaker is most attentive to you before an election,” she says. She calls attending candidate meet-and-greets her “secret weapon,” and it worked: When she presented the re-elected officials with her anti-tethering proposal, they were familiar with the concept and had already indicated that they’d be on board.
If there’s something you want to change in your community, it’s likely your neighbors feel the same way—or will when they learn more. Opahle gathered support against killing contests by hosting letter-writing events, and—inspired by her kids’ interest in her activism—partnered with a librarian to host storytime that introduces kids to coyotes and wolves.
You can even use public opinion as a strategy. Plenty of advocates had protested circuses in Multnomah County, so when the ordinance process lagged, Kozil mentioned the advocates anxiously waiting for a ban to pass. “It was just a way to use a little bit of pressure. And it worked.”
All four advocates stress that they’re not alone in their fights. “I’m one person of many, many, many people who have tugged on this rope,” says Kozil. “I’m just the one who tugged on it at the end and got it to come down.” Even if you’re one of the first to tug in your own community, your efforts will set the stage for future change—and we’re here to help.
Inspired to fight for animals in your community? Email us and we’ll connect you with an expert who can provide guidance.
Photos by Joshua Truong; courtesy of Andrea Kozil; Eric McCarthey; courtesy of Mikii Opahle