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Dogs Can’t Vote, So Here We Are

Calvert high schoolers learn to lobby to save animals

Humane Society Club members from Huntingtown High School went to the General Assembly to speak for the animals.

I can’t resist a kitten. For six years I’ve mothered orphan kittens for Patuxent Animal Welfare Society.
    But it was the numbers I couldn’t help that made me an activist. Every year in Maryland, 45,000 dogs and cats are destroyed. Maryland ranks 39th on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s state report card on animal-protection issues.
    My passing-60 promise was to get involved in making broader changes, so I got up before dawn one drizzly February morning and drove to Annapolis for Humane Lobby Day.
    I found myself in good company. Among 135 citizen lobbyists from all over Maryland were 15 students from Calvert County’s Huntingtown High School.
    Animal lovers all, they’d rented a school bus to make the trip, explained 17-year-old senior Brittany Wetklow, paying for it out of the $1,500 in profit their Humane Society Club earned from selling 500 Butter Braids at Christmas. The club also earns money by scooping Italian ice for tips at Rita’s in Prince Frederick.
    Wetklow planned to testify in honor of her first dog, Roxie, a rescued rottweiler who died young of cancer.  As a member of the Humane Society Club, Wetklow has increased her knowledge about and experience with rescuing animals.
    Each student volunteers at the Tri–County Animal Shelter and so has met face-to-face the challenges of overpopulation.
    “It’s kind of devastating and very sad,” Wetklow says. “As there’s a month between our visits, the dogs are not the same. We know half the animals there are euthanized.”
    Their Lobby Day goal was to speak to their senator and delegate in support of four animal-welfare bills being considered by the General Assembly.
    Our focus was a proposal for a statewide spay/neuter program, to save animals from being destroyed in shelters and to reduce the costs we pay for euthanasia. The House Environmental Matters committee had scheduled a 1pm hearing on the bill.
    This bill evolved from hundreds of hours of research by a task force appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley: two senators, two delegates and 10 representatives of groups that work with animals, including the Pet Food Institute and the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
    One member of the task force, Carolyn Kilborn, founded the political action committee Maryland Votes for Animals in 2009. “I didn’t feel like a leader,” she says, “but rescue groups alone couldn’t stop the suffering of the dogs and cats destroyed every year in Maryland. I had to do something.”
    The task force recommended a program modeled on ones operating successfully in 34 other states. Among them, New Jersey has reduced its euthanasia rate by 77 percent, New Hampshire by 61 percent. Funding would come from a surcharge on the fee that pet-food manufacturers already pay to sell their products in Maryland.
    Huntingtown’s students had practiced one-line presentations matched to pictures of homeless cats and dogs from Tri-County Animal Shelter for our meetings with Del. Mark Fisher and Sen. Thomas V. ‘Mike’ Miller.
    At both visits, we learned to adjust our expectations as the politicians preferred talking to listening.
    Most disappointing was the news that the House hearing on the bill had been delayed, so the two students scheduled to testify before the committee were unable to do so. They’d boarded their bus for the trip home at 3pm; the hearing on their bill began at 4:25pm.
    Veterinarians, rescue advocates, a student from the Baltimore area, and the U.S. Humane Society, Maryland Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Professional Animal Workers of Maryland testified that current resources cannot solve the overpopulation crisis, which costs Maryland taxpayers $8 to $9 million annually.
    Pet-food manufacturers countered that their industry is not responsible for the overpopulation problem and should not bear the burden of additional fees.
    “I was disappointed I couldn’t testify and speak to Senate president Miller. But we got a point across to Del. Fisher, and being there made a difference,” said Wetklow, who learned at 16 that citizens can have a powerful effect. “I testified last year, too,” she said, “It went well, and the bill, about pet-mill puppies in pet stores, was passed.”
    Paired House and Senate bills are working their way through the Maryland General Assembly. If you love animals, ask your delegates and senators to support HB 767 and SB 820.