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July 01, 2010

Ohio Landmark: Behind the Animal Welfare Agreement

The ballot initiative process, which allows citizens to place proposals for new laws before the voters, had been left for dead by our movement until The HSUS and the Fund for Animals revived its use in the early 1990s. In circumstances where animal-use industries and their allies in state legislatures summarily dismissed or fought off popular reforms in state capitols, or in some cases rejected even the idea of dialogue, the use of the initiative process became a course of last resort, and we’ve used it to great effect for our cause. Among other things, it’s been the pathway for us to ban the use of steel-jawed leghold traps and other body-gripping traps in a half dozen states, bear baiting and hounding in four states, cockfighting in three states, and inhumane factory farming practices in three states, most recently by passing Proposition 2 in California in November 2008.

While we are willing to use direct democracy as a means of achieving reform—just as other movements, corporations, and even state legislators (when they refer measures to the ballot) routinely have—it’s always a last resort for us. These measures require enormous inputs of volunteer labor and money, and bring uncertain outcomes, even more so than legislative campaigns through representative government.

Sow in gestation crate at Ohio factory farm
Humane Farming Association
Sow in gestation crate at an Ohio factory farm.

In Ohio, we had not been able to address factory farming issues in a substantive way before the Ohio Legislature. We reached out, after we worked to pass Proposition 2 in California, to Ohio’s agriculture trade groups, but were not able to jumpstart serious discussions with them. For a variety of reasons, including Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s interest in bringing animal protection advocates and farm interests together, we were able to resuscitate discussions a few weeks ago.

It all culminated dramatically in an agreement forged just yesterday between The HSUS, these agricultural organizations, and the Governor himself. As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, by not filing the petition to address inhumane confinement practices that we had been circulating to Ohio voters, we were able to come to an agreement where all three parties have committed to recommend the enactment of a series of eight landmark reforms on animal welfare.

The reforms relate to cockfighting, puppy mills, keeping dangerous exotic animals as pets, and the five elements of the ballot measure relating to livestock agriculture. We agreed to a phase-out of veal and gestation crates, a ban on strangling animals on the farm and transporting downer cattle, and a moratorium on new battery cage egg facilities, which will halt pending proposals to cram millions of additional birds into tiny cages for their entire lives (this agreement has immediate implications for the construction of a planned six-million-bird battery cage complex in the state).

Yesterday, there were no political winners or losers. Everybody was a winner because we all avoided an acrimonious and costly fall campaign with an uncertain outcome, began to see each other as sincerely minded people, and advanced eight very tangible, material reforms for animals.

We did not get everything we wanted, but that is the nature of an agreement like this. That said, it is, in my mind, an agreement in its collective form that constitutes the single biggest ever animal welfare package I’ve seen in our movement. It represents a pathway forward for much stronger animal welfare in a state that has lagged badly on this set of issues. All parties also recognize that it is not the end of the discussion, but the beginning.

As a movement, if we do not sit down with our adversaries and try to solve problems, we will never succeed. Instead, we will be wrapped up in an endless cycle of wins and losses and polarizing political campaigns. At times, we must pursue such campaigns when lawmakers or industry slam the door in our face and reject the common good. But, in the end, we need not only to change laws, but also to understand human nature and build on our shared concerns and values.

That’s what happened yesterday in Ohio. Serious-minded dialogue with our traditional political adversaries occurred, and resulted in a good set of outcomes. Ultimately, we will need them to change and to view animals in a more sensitive way if we are going to achieve our goals. At the end of the day, our work is more about human behavior than animal behavior and more about solutions than political victories.

We made great progress yesterday, not just in the reforms set in motion, but on the idea of working together to forge solutions. We should feel hopeful about these very meaningful reforms, but also about the human dimension of our cause.

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