A Message From Legislator Jon Cooper for National Justice for Animals WeekPosted by Legislator Jon Cooper on February 20th, 2011
If you’re reading this, regardless of where you come from (geographically, philosophically or otherwise) you and I have something in common that is very dear to me—an enduring passion for animals; their protection, their preservation and a keen appreciation of the very important role they play in the world and in our own daily lives.
I’d like to thank the hard-working folks at the Animal Legal Defense Fund for recognizing me for my efforts this past year to get adopted the world’s first animal abuser registry (I’ll talk about Justin’s Law in greater detail in a later posting). But more importantly, I want to thank the ALDF for all the hard work they have done behalf on of animal rights for more than 30 years.
It doesn’t matter if your commitment to animals is rooted in a philosophically based belief that dictates your dietary and lifestyle choices, or if is just based upon the close, emotional bond you once had with a family pet that you’ll never forget. What brings us all together here is a deep love and respect for animals. I hope that some of you reading this are young people. Because like most of us, it was during my youth when I first discovered my passion for animals and later, animal rights.
Long before I ever decided to run for elected office, I was motivated at the early age of fourteen to get personally involved in the effort to promote animal rights. Those of you old enough to remember will recall that in the late sixties and early seventies commercial whale hunting (the United States ceased commercial whaling in 1971) and the slaughter of baby seals in Canada were two animal rights issues that generated a great deal of media attention and public outrage.
Growing up in my hometown of Syosset, New York (a sleepy, middle-class Manhattan suburb on the north shore of Long Island), I was horrified at the gruesome images of baby seals being dragged away from their mothers, beaten and skinned alive. I was so disturbed that I wrote a letter to the editor of Newsday (the major daily newspaper on Long Island) condemning the practice. But afraid that my concerns would not get their proper attention because they were coming from a teenager, instead of penning just my name to the letter, I signed it Jon Cooper, president of the Syosset Save Our Seals Society. Now, of course, that organization didn’t exist (except in my enraged imagination). And while I wasn’t proud about misrepresenting myself (something I would painfully learn as I got older that many people did), my passionate error in judgment did have an interesting effect.
Shortly thereafter, the head of the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum (Syosset’s neighboring town also on the north shore of Long Island) wrote his own letter in praise of my op-ed, stating in part, “we need to follow the lead of dedicated conservationists such as Jon Cooper.” Dedicated conservationist! I couldn’t even conserve my allowance to last all week!
And after that, several other readers wrote the paper asking for more information about the Syosset Save Our Seals Society. So many that the paper called me at my house and printed our home address (I thought my parents were going to kill me!) as the “headquarters” for the SSOSS. Finally, after getting flooded with requests for information and membership, I did actually form the group with several classmates of mine at Syosset High School. By the time I graduated, the SSOSS had printed several newsletters with stories ranging from protecting seals and whales to protesting inhumane trapping practices. We also ended up with a membership of more than 200 concerned animal lovers from all over the state.
When I went off to college, the Syosset Save Our Seals Society came to as an abrupt ending as it had begun. But even though my campaign to protect pinnipeds and cetaceans had ceased, my efforts to protect animals was just beginning to grow (and protect) legs.
As a skinny, Jewish kid from New York with progressive sensibilities, the last place you might expect me to attend college would be the Deep South. But in 1976 I was a political science major in my junior year at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. After graduating, I had initially intended to combine my passion for animals with a law degree. But life has a funny way of making some dreams come true while at the same time teaching us some painful truths about life.
There are many pioneers in the animal rights movement, but one of my heroes was Cleveland Amory, founder and guiding force of the Fund for Animals. Among his other accomplishments, Cleveland recruited a number of prominent celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore to the cause, putting them to use in campaigns against trapping, the wearing of fur, and the clubbing of baby seals. To those of you who have never heard of Amory, his groundbreaking passion for animal rights was matched only by his abilities as masterful storyteller (if you haven’t read Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife, please do so—it will change your life). I had remained active in other animal rights organizations all through college but Amory’s words had inspired me to a new level of action.
I met with a local NC state assemblyman (a Durham attorney) and asked him to sponsor legislation banning the use of steel-jaw leghold traps in the Tar Heel State. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but regardless of how you feel about hunting or killing animals for any reason, trapping is one of the most inhumane activities on the planet. Every year leghold traps maim, torture and kill countless animals (innocent pets included) and even the occasional human who unknowingly and painfully strays into their paths.
After going to his office and demonstrating the shattering effect a small, smooth jawed trap (designed to catch raccoons) had on one of his No. 2 pencils, the assemblyman was on board. We got a sponsor in the state Senate to join our cause and I wound up forming another group called the National Association for Humane Trapping. Our first act was to organize a statewide petition drive in support of the anti-trapping bill. We were so successful in enlisting supporters and converts, we actually ended up forging an unlikely alliance between local animal rights groups and of all people—hunters (whose dogs often got caught in traps).
But trapping was very popular in North Carolina and in fact was a major industry there. So after our coalition began staging rallies at the state capital in Raleigh, the pro-trapping lobby also began to mount counter protest demonstrations. I was told by journalists covering our efforts that the last time the state house had seen protests this large and fervent was during the debate on the Equal Rights Amendment.
By my senior year, we ended up gathering over 20,000 petition signatures and I was asked to testify before the Assembly committee which had jurisdiction over the legislation. I was also asked to demonstrate the leghold trap. After I sat down in front of the microphones, I took out the small raccoon trap (the same one I had first demonstrated in the Durham assemblyman’s office) and was stunned by what happened next.
My supposed ally the assemblyman stood up and declared that not only was he withdrawing his support for the bill, but that I had “tricked him” into sponsoring the legislation by showing him in his office that first day a huge, jagged-toothed trap designed to catch bears. Obviously, the trapping lobby had gotten to him. That was the moment I learned what a dirty business politics could be.
I graduated from Duke in 1977, still committed to animal rights but utterly disillusioned by the political process. I never did decide to become a lawyer either. The North Carolina Legislature did eventually place some restrictions on leghold traps, but I was the one who felt like I had been caught in a trap. Ensnared by a political system where money and influence had amputated truth and decency.
It would be many years before I took another interest in politics. But with time, wounds do heal and scar over the pain. And happily, I still had inside me a passion for animal rights that even the harsh truths of that youthful experience could not squelch.