Note: This is a chapter in the Grassroots Advocacy Toolkit.
Advocacy is the act of building public support for a certain cause or policy. We often hear from people who are reluctant to call or email their elected city council members or state representatives because they think their opinions won’t matter or their voices won’t be heard. But as history continues to teach us, that is simply not the case. Anyone can make a big difference. As a voter, your opinions matter to the people who represent you. This chapter covers everything you need to know about working to effect change in your community through the legislative process.
Having animal-friendly legislation in place is important to any long-term advocacy efforts. If we want to help local pets, we have to make sure that (1) there aren’t any current laws hindering us in our efforts to do so and (2) there are laws in place that help maximize that work. For example, some communities have outdated animal ordinances that prevent the implementation of trap-neuter-return programs for cats. Other places have problematic laws that require animal control officers to take any stray dogs directly to the shelter (further contributing to shelter overcrowding) rather than working to return the dogs to their owners in the field.
It’s also important to understand how big of an impact advocating for humane legislation can have. While every animal is an individual and a life worth saving, we have to think beyond just saving one animal to long-term change that ensures the safety of hundreds of thousands. For example, we can rescue a pit bull terrier in a city with a breed ban in place. Or we can work together to convince the city council to pass legislation that prohibits breed restrictions and champions a more progressive ordinance focused on responsible pet ownership and public safety. The passage of that one piece of legislation will save thousands of dogs and continue to do so indefinitely.
You can help save cats and dogs in your community by working with your city council or other governing body to create a lifesaving animal ordinance. The following steps provide a road map for enacting a lifesaving ordinance in your city or county.
1. Determine your goal
The first step to creating a lifesaving animal ordinance is determining your goal. What are you hoping to achieve? What makes sense for your community? (For more on this topic, see Chapter 1.) Every situation is different, and every community has its own unique needs. For example:
- Are there pet stores selling companion animals in your community? You may want to enact an ordinance to ban the retail sale of commercially bred puppies, kittens and rabbits in pet stores. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more guidance on this topic.
- Are people selling animals on public streets or at swap meets or flea markets? You might want to enact an ordinance to prohibit the sale of animals in those locations.
- Are feral and stray cats (aka community cats) entering shelters in high numbers? If so, you can pursue an ordinance that removes barriers to implementing a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program.
- Does your city or county have breed-specific policies in place that target certain breeds of dogs, such as pit bull terriers?
Talk to people at your local animal control agency or municipal shelter. What do they see as the greatest need? Where are the animals in their facility coming from? And remember to keep it simple. The more things you try to include in your ordinance, the more opposition you will invite. And the more complicated the ordinance is, the more resistance it will receive from legislators.
2. Do research and gather data
Start the process by gathering as much information as possible about the current state of animal welfare in your community. How many shelters are there? How many cats and dogs are entering the shelter(s) each year and how many leave alive? Use the community lifesaving dashboard mentioned in Chapter 1 as a starting point for your research.
You will need to consider what kinds of laws are already in place. You can identify local codes at municode.com. You’ll want to find out whether your state operates under home rule or Dillon’s Rule. This information will determine what kinds of local ordinances can be enacted in your community.
You will also need to know how your community’s legislative process works. Is your governing body a city council, a county council, or a board of commissioners or supervisors? Is the mayor a separate elected official or a member of the council? (For the purposes of this guide, local governing bodies will be referred to as city councils or councils.)
Visit your community’s official website and look at previous meeting agendas to see what kind of issues the council has taken up in the past, and how the council members have voted on those issues. This could give you valuable insight into how they might respond to your proposal.
3. Propose your ordinance
Generally, a local ordinance starts with either an elected official or a member of the public introducing the proposed ordinance to the governing body. That means you can choose to either meet with an elected official (or a member of the staff) and ask him/her to introduce it, or you can introduce it yourself at a public meeting of the governing body.
Meet with a public official
Some city councils are set up so that each member represents a district within the community, while others are “at large,” which means the entire body represents the entire community. For the former, you would ideally meet with your own representative, but any member will do, as long as that person is animal-friendly.
You’ve already done some research on the governing body as a whole, but now you will want to research the individual members. Check their voting records, search for newspaper articles online about them and visit their websites. You might find out something useful that could help you determine with whom to meet (for example, one of them may have a rescued dog).
Here are some other details to consider:
- What are their special interests?
- Are any of those interests relevant to what you’re proposing?
- How long are their terms of office?
- Are they running for re-election?
To initiate the meeting, start with a phone call. You can find contact information for elected officials on your city or county website, through a phone call to the city or county clerk’s office, or through Ballotpedia. Phone calls are often the most effective means for communicating with public officials about specific issues. Identify yourself as a constituent and try to set up an in-person meeting to discuss your idea further.
When you meet with the council member for the first time, explain the issue briefly but thoroughly. Be prepared to discuss why your proposal would be good for the community. Public officials are often incredibly busy, and they’re approached frequently with ideas about a range of issues. So, it’s best to be prepared with proposed language for your ordinance.
If you need examples of language for a pet sales ordinance, Best Friends has links to all of the retail pet sales ordinances that have been enacted throughout North America. We also have a model no-kill resolution that is concise and positive (located under “Example language for a no-kill resolution”). Use these as a starting point and customize as necessary. We can also help you draft issue-specific language based on your community’s particular needs.
For the face-to-face meeting, have your data on hand and be prepared to answer questions. Leave the official with a fact sheet or a one-page summary, as well as your contact information. Be sure to thank the official for his or her time and then follow up a few days later.
Introduce the topic at a public council meeting
The second option is to introduce the proposed ordinance yourself at a public council meeting. You can give a brief presentation during the public comment period of the meeting (and perhaps a longer presentation if you make arrangements with the city clerk in advance).
Generally, the council will not discuss the issue until a future meeting, since open meeting laws dictate that all discussion items must be on the agenda that is posted for the public in advance (usually three days before the meeting). So, keep in mind that whether it’s you or a council member who introduces the request for an ordinance, the council will not consider it at that first meeting. The topic will need to be put on the agenda for discussion at a future meeting. Don’t be discouraged, though; your initial presentation will get the ball rolling.
4. Rally support from the community
“Community” should encompass residents, local business owners and professionals. When you consider who will support your proposal, think beyond the obvious animal welfare contingency, since anyone who is in support of your issue — especially if it’s a broad cross-section of the community — can be of enormous value to your cause.
You will also want to contact members of the animal welfare community, such as shelter workers and volunteers, animal rescue groups, animal control officers, reputable breeders and veterinarians. Ask those individuals to contact the city council, sign letters and attend council meetings in support of your proposal. Rally your support early so you’re not scrambling for reinforcement later.
You may also want to create a paper or online petition (see Chapter 4) to start mobilizing volunteers and support for a possible ordinance. (Try to get signatures only from people who live or work in the community.) This can also be done before your ordinance is officially proposed.
When it comes to grassroots advocacy, social media is a powerful tool. You can quickly generate awareness and support with posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, blogs and other platforms. Many elected officials have public Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, so take advantage of the opportunity to communicate directly with them through those channels. See Chapter 8 for information on how to use digital tools to support your work.
In addition, you can set up a Facebook group to share updates and/or an event page to encourage public meeting attendance. These are good places to link to a petition, provide contact information for council members or post a sample letter for supporters to send to council members.
Prewritten letters to the council can make it easy and convenient for people to communicate their support; the letters should include each supporter’s name, address and signature. Make copies of all letters before submitting them to the council.
5. Spread the word
Local media outlets will likely be interested in what you’re proposing for the community. Here are some ideas for attracting media coverage to educate the community and garner support:
- Send letters or emails outlining your proposed ordinance to the editors of local newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and websites.
- Provide relevant background material about the issue ahead of time to any media representative who contacts you for an interview.
- Prepare a simple set of talking points for yourself. If a number of people are involved in your efforts, select one person as the media spokesperson and make sure that person is prepared to speak accurately and concisely about the issue. Ideally, your spokesperson should be a member of the community.
- When you meet with the media, consider bringing along a carefully selected ambassador dog or cat. Ambassador animals should be well-behaved and relaxed in hectic, unfamiliar public environments. They should also be clean, well-groomed and appear as friendly and approachable as possible. For dogs, this means no choke chains, chain leashes, prong collars or other aversive-training equipment.
6. Attend local government meetings
It’s a good idea to attend local government meetings while you’re waiting for your ordinance to be introduced, so you can see how the meetings are run and how the process works. You can also get a sense of the council members’ personalities. It will help you feel more comfortable when it’s time for you to testify in support of your ordinance. Once you’re familiar with the format of the meetings, it’s time to prepare for introducing your ordinance.
Before the meeting in which your proposal will come before the council, submit an information packet to each council member, as well as the mayor (if he or she is not a member of the council) and the city clerk. Keep at least one copy for yourself. Ask the city clerk how many copies need to be submitted and how far in advance of the meeting they need to be sent. You’ll want council members to have time to review the information. Be sure to read Chapter 9, which gives pointers for working with the media to support your efforts.
What to include in the information packets:
- A cover letter that briefly yet clearly explains the issue
- Your research materials
- A list of cities or counties that have passed similar ordinances, and a few sample ordinances that are comparable to what you are trying to achieve
- General informational materials about the issue (the Best Friends advocacy page has helpful resources)
- Your business card or contact information
What to bring to the meeting:
- A copy (or several copies, if you can) of the packet you sent to each council member
- Sample ordinances for the city attorney or city administrator
- Your petition signatures and/or copies of support letters
- A PowerPoint presentation, if possible
- Community support (subject matter experts and fellow constituents)
What to do and say at the meeting
Once you’ve introduced the ordinance, the public will be given a chance to comment on it. Each person who wishes to address the council will fill out a speaker card, and speakers are usually given 3-5 minutes each to speak. If possible, try to meet with public commenters in advance so that you know what they plan to say about the proposal. Organize them in the order of how you want the information presented; turn in your speaker cards in that order and plan for each person who comments to cover a different point.
When addressing the council, each speaker should state his/her name and whether he or she is a resident and/or business owner in the community (and if so, for how long). The council will want to hear from both residents and business owners who may be affected by the ordinance.
All speakers should have their remarks written out in advance. Public speaking can be scary for some people, so prepared notes bolster confidence and make it easier for speakers to avoid rambling or repetition. They also help ensure that every important point is covered within the time limit, and make it easier for speakers to edit their remarks on the fly if the council decides to shorten the speaker time at the meeting (which they often do if a lot of speaker cards are turned in). It’s always a good idea to practice beforehand.
It isn’t necessary to use the entire allotted public comment time (the council will be grateful if you don’t), especially if you’re just repeating what has already been said. If that’s the case, each speaker should just state his or her name, and that he/she is a resident who supports the ordinance.
If possible, create a PowerPoint presentation containing relevant facts and photos. This requires a bit more organization and practice, but PowerPoint is a very powerful tool since it gives the council visuals to accompany your remarks.
Tips for effective testimony:
- DO dress and conduct yourself appropriately. Be professional and businesslike in your appearance and your demeanor.
- DO try to be concise and on point. Avoid repeating what has already been said by other speakers.
- DO be patient, and be prepared to compromise. You may not get exactly what you set out to achieve.
- DO follow up to thank the council members who voted in support of your ordinance and encourage others to do the same.
- DON’T focus too much on animal cruelty. Not all elected officials are animal lovers, so try to tailor your remarks to their interests as legislators and address any concerns they might have.
- DON’T target any individual, group or business. Keep your focus on the general benefits that your ordinance will provide for the community.
- DON’T be emotional, combative or disrespectful. Even if others say things you find offensive or insulting, you will be much more effective if you remain polite and calm throughout the process.
Ordinance approval process
If there is a council motion to consider an ordinance, it usually starts with a direction to the city or county manager, attorney or staff to come back with a report and a recommendation. Or the council may decide to create a working group to investigate the issue and follow up with a report.
Once the council approves the drafting of an ordinance, the city or county attorney usually writes it. It’s easiest for them to use an ordinance already passed by another jurisdiction as a template. (That’s why you include those in the council packets and why you should always bring extra copies to the meeting.)
Once the ordinance is written, it will either go before the full council for a vote or, if the city or county is large, the ordinance may first have to be approved by a committee. When the ordinance goes before the full council, there will be a first reading vote and a public hearing, usually followed by a second reading vote a few weeks later. The council may revise the ordinance during this process.
Once the final ordinance is approved by a majority vote, it will go into effect. Depending on the ordinance and the city’s or county’s process, it may be effective immediately or after a designated waiting period.
7. Don’t give up!
Don’t be discouraged if your ordinance isn’t enacted. Getting the issue out there is a big step forward and will make it easier to implement some form of positive change down the road. You always have the option to try again (perhaps with a different elected council). And everything you’ve done in the process will help lead your community toward a no-kill future.
Take some time to regroup, and then consider doing the following:
- Reflect on your efforts, to determine whether you may need to adjust your strategy.
- Reach out to the elected officials who voted against your ordinance, to find out why they were not in support.
- Intensify your outreach, including communications with officials.
- Keep going to city council meetings and speaking up. Double your efforts to encourage supporters to attend meetings with you and provide input.
- Support animal-friendly candidates in future elections and work to help them win. (If you represent a nonprofit organization, be sure to research any laws or restrictions around supporting political candidates.)
- Attend political fundraisers and talk about the issues that matter to you.
- Consider running for public office yourself.
- Make your voice heard on important federal, state and local issues for animals by signing up to join the 2025 Action Team.
And when you do succeed, be sure to thank your public officials and fellow advocates. Implementing lifesaving change for animals takes all of us working together, and the more we recognize and value one another’s efforts, the more effective we will be.