Win, lose or draw, legislating animal care is an ongoing effort.
Every year, we at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) monitor hundreds of pieces of legislation and regulatory proposals at the local, state, federal and even international levels. Our goal is simple, even if the task is not—to ensure animal health and well-being, as well as the availability of pets. Sometimes, legislators act in a prescriptive fashion—establishing uniform care and reporting standards, for example. Other times, these proposals are restrictive, creating sourcing requirements or prohibiting certain practices.
The press and politicians often classify the outcomes of these efforts as “wins” and “losses.” The reality, however, is that there are few permanent victories or losses for the responsible pet industry. A great example of this has played out over the past year and a half in New Jersey, where legislators sought to expand the state’s Pet Purchase Protection Act in a way that would have devastated sectors of the responsible pet trade. As Governor Chris Christie noted in his conditional veto, the new bill was introduced less than a year after the industry-supported act was signed into law.
As a result, we find that the discussions we conduct with legislators and regulators carry on from one year to the next. Many of the specific proposals we work on do, too. Lawmakers frequently reintroduce a bill at each opportunity, even if it went down in flames each and every time before. The reference numbers may change, but the text remains the same.
This isn’t all bad news. The legislative process is such that the hard work put into dialogue, education and engagement can lead to greater understanding of what breeders, retailers, vets, fishermen and others in our industry do every day. Discussion regarding the merits of a particular bill may evolve to consider a broader range of data and opinions. This can result in a much stronger approach or, on occasion, a sponsor determining that their proposal was off base to begin with and withdrawing it.
The bad news is that even when bad legislation is defeated, it rarely goes away altogether. Instead, it is reintroduced to be considered again, amended to address specific sticking points while maintaining its misguided intent, or even added to an unrelated piece of legislation so it can be sneaked through.
So what does this mean for an industry focused on pet care, not politics? As we’ve mentioned before in this column, one key is ongoing engagement with lawmakers—by the industry as a whole and by you as a business owner and pet care professional. If we wait to respond to specific bills as they’re introduced (and re-introduced), we are constantly playing catch-up and missing out on opportunities to be true partners in the legislative process. By recognizing that there’s an ongoing conversation taking place that these proposals are a part of, we have a greater opportunity to shape that conversation before legislation is even filed.
This doesn’t stop if the industry gets a “win.” There is always more to be done. Politics (and, by extension, legislation) is the art of the possible. In many cases, the bills we see proposed seek to amend existing laws, and every one of those existing laws represented a win for someone at the time. Continuous engagement means that legislators, their staff and other important stakeholders are more likely to ask for industry insights on bills and ordinances.
Engagement is an investment, and like any investment, the more you do the easier it gets and the more successful you’ll be. Sometimes positive results can take years; breed-specific restrictions and bans, for example, were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. They are now are falling out of favor in jurisdictions across the country.
Outward-facing communication with legislators isn’t the only area in which increased engagement is necessary. The other challenge PIJAC frequently sees in our efforts to tackle hundreds of pieces of legislation is a disconnect within the industry. Manufacturers and distributors often see their interests as separate from those of breeders and retailers, and vice-versa. Small business retailers, groomers, fishermen and veterinarians often shrug when asked to get involved in something outside of their state.
The fact is that the responsible pet trade wins or loses together. There is no pet industry without consistent access to responsibly sourced pets. Cat and dog retailers and breeders are their targets today, but in Cambridge, Mass., we are seeing an expansion of that strategy to include banning sales on birds and reptiles. In Hawaii, PIJAC worked with fishermen, transporters and others against an effort to ban virtually all aquarium fishing in the state.
Only together can the responsible pet trade ensure the availability of healthy pets for loving pet owners. Let’s savor our wins and recover after our losses, but never lose sight of the road ahead.
Mike Bober is the president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.