Monday, January 21, 2013

The Challenges of Protecting Animals

During the past six months there’s been a great deal of media coverage about wild animal captivity issues in Ontario. Marineland in Niagara Falls, the Toronto Zoo elephants and Darwin the IKEA monkey have been three of the bigger stories, but a broad assortment of other captivity issues, both large and small, have also been featured in print, radio, television and internet media. There's also been a seemingly endless stream of other kinds of animal stories as well.

The extensive coverage of captivity issues has generated public profile and political interest both municipally and provincially. There are now more politicians than ever who take animal captivity issues (and other animal concerns) seriously or, who, at least, are not dismissive of them. It's a vastly different situation than it was 20 years ago.

That doesn’t mean things are fine today, because they’re not. We still have no comprehensive regulation of Ontario’s wildlife in captivity and our provincial animal protection legislation effectively excludes protection from most animals. However, if we’re smart, we have an opportunity to capitalize on what's happened so that we can move the animal protection agenda forward. But it won't be easy.

At the best of times, there are enormous challenges in making change happen, even when issues have a heightened profile, significant interest and momentum. There is always stiff competition for government attention from a broad spectrum of other issues. And there’s the inevitable, and often substantial, push-back from the individuals and businesses that exploit animals for personal amusement or profit.

One of the lesser known challenges is push-back from government bureaucrats themselves, some who fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. I’ve actually heard some bureaucrats say, “my job is to make sure nothing changes.” They employ all kinds of issue management strategies, the most common being to delay. An often used tactic is to initiate consultations so that issue discussions drag on for weeks, months or even years. By the time some consultations finish (and many don’t, they just fizzle out), the Ministers and other politicians that were in place when they started are long gone. Even the governing party may have changed. And the new regime may not be as committed as the previous one, so no action is forthcoming. It’s happened again and again and again.

Having said that, there are some amazingly proactive bureaucrats who really do want to move the animal protection agenda forward. And there’s also an ever increasing number of politicians at every level of government who want to do the same. To help them make change happen, we should understand the systems in which they work and the internal challenges they face.

Making change happen for animals is hard. It requires guts, brains, know how and organization. Eternal vigilance isn’t enough. We need to understand how the system works and do what we can to use it and to assist or complement those who are working in it. The first step to doing that is knowledge, so I’d like to recommend three excellent books that will help every Canadian animal protection activist become better at what they do.

The first is The Art of the Possible (a handbook for political activism) by Amanda Sussman. Every activist should read this book. It provides a good synopsis about how Canada’s federal government works, but much of the material also applies to other levels of government and to other jurisdictions.

The second book is Lesli Bisgould’s Animals and the Law. Her synopsis of Canadian laws affecting animals helps explain why things are the way they are and where they should go in the future. It should be on the bookshelf of every Canadian animal protection activist.

And last, but not least, is George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. If you’ve ever wondered why the other side is so successful at getting their message heard and why so many people seem to ignore the facts about issues, this book will help you understand why.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

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