New York City

Animal rights are having a moment right now

But is there anything more to it than cold political calculation?

A woman protests the use of fur during a New York City Council Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing hearing regarding the fur ban.

A woman protests the use of fur during a New York City Council Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing hearing regarding the fur ban. John McCarten for the New York City Council

Animals will never decide an election in New York. Yes, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2014 run-in with a groundhog – which later died – may not exactly be helping his presidential campaign. But the proud horses, cats, beavers and geese of the state of New York simply aren’t allowed to vote.

The people who love animals, though – that’s a different story.

“Many constituents are one-issue voters. And their one issue is animals,” said Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who is likely New York’s most prolific legislator on animal welfare issues.

And that is one of the reasons why New York City – and to an extent, the state as a whole – is caught up in an animal welfare stampede. In June, the state Legislature passed a bill to make New York the first state to ban the declawing of cats. Weeks later, the New York City Council held a hearing on a package of 16 animal welfare bills and resolutions, running the gamut from banning the sale of the French delicacy foie gras to establishing a city department of animal welfare. Additionally, the city is considering following Los Angeles and San Francisco in banning the sale of fur. Already, the City Council passed a bill to build new full-service animal shelters in Queens and the Bronx, and the de Blasio administration managed to move pickups for Central Park’s carriage horses into the park – a small, but significant win in that ongoing regulatory battle.

“There’s a lot of animal rights legislation that’s finally making progress after years of not a lot of progress on that front,” said Edita Birnkrant, executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, or NYCLASS, an organization that lobbies for animal welfare.

But why now, in 2019? Animal welfare legislation is nothing new. Rosenthal has passed at least one animal welfare law each year since taking office in 2006. The measures have ranged from banning the tattooing and piercing of pets to a law allowing cities to better regulate so-called puppy mills.

In the days of divided government, Rosenthal, a Democrat, would often pass bills working with Republican legislators. “Caring about animals is not a partisan issue,” she said. But in recent years, Rosenthal said, her animal welfare bills have been getting more support. For that, she credits the “years of education and effort and advocacy” by animal welfare groups – but also their pull at the polls.

“I always get pushback when one of my bills is going forward, and the animal advocates send out email blasts to everyone,” Rosenthal told City & State. Lawmakers complain to her, “‘My whole inbox is full of people advocating for your bill!’ So I think legislators are realizing this is an important constituency.”

This dynamic has come into sharper focus at the city level. NYCLASS has just lobbied extensively, spending $156,000 lobbying for animal welfare legislation in the first six months of 2019 alone, but the organization has also been quite generous to politicians that agree with them. NYCLASS and its main backers, real estate executives Stephen Nislick and Wendy Neu, were major donors to New York City Is Not For Sale, a political action committee that spent more than $1 million ahead of the 2013 mayoral race. NYCLASS directly spent nearly $190,000 supporting de Blasio and other candidates that cycle, and in 2017 spent more than $230,000 backing six City Council candidates. As an independent expenditure committee, NYCLASS can blow past city-mandated spending limits as long as it doesn’t coordinate with candidates directly.

NYCLASS’ spending – not to mention the broader contingent of animal welfare voters – could be a real benefit to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s likely mayoral campaign in 2021, suggested a member of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive political issue. “Not all pandering is progressive,” the member said.

Speaking for NYCLASS, Birnkrant brushed off the idea that the impending citywide elections had anything to do with the recent animal welfare push. “There’s no nefarious reason behind it. It’s just the issues have been consistently worked on and pushed for a very long time. So now we’re seeing progress happen,” Birnkrant told City & State. “And by the way, the fur ban proposed by Corey Johnson actually took animal advocates by surprise. We weren’t even pushing for a fur ban bill! He did that on his own.”

If Johnson is after animal welfare voters’ support, he’s making a strong case. He’s the lead sponsor of the fur ban bill, and he’s a driving force behind the animal rights package of 16 bills being considered. 

A spokesman for Johnson, Juan Soto, told City & State in an email that this isn’t anything new: “The Speaker has always been an animal lover and protecting their welfare is a priority.”
Johnson said as much himself, speaking at a regularly scheduled City Hall press conference on June 18. “I always try to lean in the direction of being humane and treating animals with respect. I’m a big animal lover,” he said, adding that he himself has a rescue cat.

Of course, Johnson isn’t blind to political give-and-take of animal welfare groups. NYCLASS’ 2013 donations and subsequent failed campaign to banish the carriage horses from Central Park was covered extensively by the press. In April 2014, four months into de Blasio’s first term as mayor – and Johnson’s first term as a city councilman – the Daily News published a story declaring “animal-rights advocates who helped elect Mayor de Blasio are unleashing their clout at City Hall.” 

But Brooklyn City Councilman Justin Brannan isn’t buying that Johnson’s push is motivated by a mayoral run.

“That’s such a lazy take,” he told City & State. “Those of us who care about this stuff have a record of caring about this stuff before I even knew what NYCLASS was.”

Brannan’s own record is unassailable – he has “meat is murder” tattooed on his neck. As a vegetarian since 1992, long before he entered politics, Brannan is one of a growing coterie of New York elected officials who eschew meat, whether for reasons of health or ideology. Along with some carnivorous allies, they’ve managed to pass a number of policies appreciated by both environmental and animal welfare advocates, such as serving only plant-based meals in New York City schools on “meatless Mondays.

Brannan said he and Johnson first talked about introducing a big animal welfare legislative package in April 2018 on a trip to Israel. Brannan had just been elected, and Johnson was the newly elected speaker and wasn’t yet considering a mayoral run. Brannan knew Johnson would be receptive, since he had sponsored animal welfare legislation in his first term.

So far, none of the city’s major animal welfare bills introduced this year have passed. The two marquee proposals, the foie gras ban and the fur ban, are facing staunch opposition from some business interests in the city. “What they would do is wipe out my industry and put me out of business. They’d have more empty stores and more loss of these jobs,” said Nick Pologeorgis, the owner of Manhattan-based Pologeorgis Furs, which has around 20 employees. “I feel now that the City Council understands a little bit better of what is involved here, and I’m sure they don’t want to see 7,500 jobs lost in New York City.”

Opponents of the fur ban also launched an aggressive campaign and enlisted black churchgoers to stress fur clothing’s importance in their community. One activist, the Rev. Johnnie Green, told The New York Times that Johnson’s support for a fur ban may cost him votes among black New Yorkers.

Johnson’s spokesman said the animal welfare package is still going through the legislative process, and Brannan thinks the speaker and his staff are letting the issue cool down a bit before moving on the bills.

“I think Corey has the stomach to want to push this forward. The fur stuff was super polarizing, but he stuck to his guns,” Brannan said. “That’s the kind of leadership we need to get some of this stuff done.”

And even if the bills pass into law, animal welfare activists won’t sit, stay and lie down for long – especially when it comes to one of New York’s most politically charged battles.

“While there’s been a rapid advance of other animal rights issues,” Birnkrant said, “carriage horses are still way behind in what we can do to make their lives better.”