College Student Lauren Nessralla Passes Plymouth Fur Ban
In April 2022, college student Lauren Nesralla led a successful campaign to ban the retail sale of fur in her hometown of Plymouth. Lauren had been involved in animal advocacy for several years, including on the topic of fur, and when she saw the passage of a fur ban in Brookline by a local teen, she decided to do the same for her community of Plymouth. Read on to learn about Lauren’s experience.
What made you interested in this issue? What led you to decide to pursue a bylaw?
I have been involved with animal rights activism since I was a sophomore in high school. Among other campaigns, I was involved with the successful pressure campaigns against Neiman Marcus and Canada Goose to drop their sale of cruel fur. I did street canvassing before as well, calling on citizens to contact their state representatives and senators to pass bills S.623/H.965 which would effectively ban the retail sale of fur products in Massachusetts. In the summer of 2021, I heard of a proposed bylaw to ban fur products in Brookline. I was enthusiastic about this and wanted to replicate this in Plymouth but it was not until Brookline’s bylaw passed in December that I felt empowered to take this on. Brookline’s victory showed me that you do not have to be an adult or have a degree to be the lead sponsor of a successful article. So it was in December that I got serious about achieving a fur-free Plymouth.
How did you go about figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to navigate the citizen petition process in your town?
It was intimidating. I really had no knowledge of the citizen petition process. Online the basics of the process were there, like needing a necessary ten registered town voters to sign the petition, but the information did not go much further than that. So I really found the answers to my questions by asking. When I was filing the bylaw I reached out to my town clerk for help on the format of the bylaw, as well as how I should fill in the intent of the petitioners. After I filed the citizen petition, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) introduced me to another Plymouth animal advocate who is a town meeting member. She helped me from letting me know I would have to present to the Finance and Advisory Committee to letting me know that the Select Board would also be voting on the article, as well as provided other information about the process.
What were the biggest challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?
Two days before town meeting, a letter from Plymouth’s Agricultural Commission was released to all town meeting members stating their unanimous opposition to the article since portions of the proposed bylaw were found to be “in conflict with Plymouth Town Code Chapter 63.” This chapter they referred to is the right to farm bylaw. There was no actual conflict as Weston, Massachusetts is a right to farm community as well. Weston enacted a fur ban with similar bylaw language and the Massachusetts Attorney General found in 2021 that fur bans are not in conflict with state or local law. So I sent out an email to all town meeting members that day explaining this, with the attached Weston opinion. I also reached out to the MA HSUS state director who asked Harvard Law School on my behalf if they would take a look at the opinion.
Matters continued to get worse. The day before town meeting, the American Fur Council (AFC) had their lawyer send out an email to all voting town meeting members threatening to sue our town if they even allowed the vote to proceed. They dishonestly claimed that the proposed bylaw was in conflict with state law, despite the MA Attorney General having twice declared that these fur bans are not in violation. This fear-mongering by the fur industry was upsetting but not entirely surprising given their immorality. The Animal Law Program at Harvard Law School had not yet finished their letter, so they addressed both the Agricultural Commission’s statement as well as the AFC’s. I forwarded this opinion to all town meeting members. Luckily, my town saw through the AFC’s attempt at subverting our democratic process and did not buy into the bullying. To date, the AFC has not filed any lawsuits against Plymouth.
What were the main arguments from the opposition and how did you counter them?
Fur-free Plymouth was met with much opposition. Hunting groups based in Carver, Barnstable, and Rutland, including the Plymouth County League of Sportsmen, as well as the store M & M Plimoth Bay Outfitters, all wrote letters in opposition to town meeting members. One of their main arguments contended that the bylaw would affect local hunting while pointing out how my presentation used only examples from international fur farms. They claimed this was evidence that local hunting is a separate, ethical practice. However, 85-95% of fur is sourced from fur farms, and not from hunters or trappers in Massachusetts. Disease variants and transmission can also not follow this convenient narrative. COVID variants started by mink on local fur farms in Northern Europe have now spread to humans across the globe, threatening vaccine efficacy for us all.
Another main argument was that the fur industry is already a dying industry. The opposition detailed the numerous companies that have dropped their sale of fur as evidence of this. It is important to note that the many retailers who have gone fur-free were strongly influenced by the legislative work being done to ban both fur farming and fur sales. It is not a coincidence that the largest number of retailers banned fur from their inventories only after California passed its statewide fur ban. The fur industry is still very much alive, proved by their threats. Massachusetts ranks as the state with the fourth highest fur sales in the country, according to 2017 Economic Census Data. Legislating fur bans is necessary to continue on the trajectory toward a fur-free world.
The third main argument was that legislating a fur ban is an infringement on peoples’ rights. Yet, there are already many bans on animal products that our society deems to be wantonly cruel, such as bans on dog meat and shark fins. These bans are not even noticed because society has progressed past the point of their use. Currently, society is progressing past the use of real animal fur as over two-thirds of Massachusetts voters support a statewide fur ban.
Knowing the arguments being used, I made sure to continuously edit my presentation to address new concerns.
Given that Plymouth has a representative town meeting form of government, what tactics do you think were most effective to reach/influence the town meeting members?
Hearing directly from town meeting members’ constituents regarding their support of the ban highly influenced the members to support it as well. Many citizens emailed the members of their precinct in support of the ban, urging them to vote in favor of the article. A few residents, including a MSPCA-Angell Plymouth veterinarian, even sent out letters to all members in support. Three residents also requested time to speak at town meeting and voiced their support for the article. These voices had a profound impact.
Is there any follow-up work to be done after passing an ordinance?
There is no further work for me to do on this ordinance.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have avoided media interviews until after the bylaw passed. In February, I had a radio interview with WATD 95.9 FM on the fur ban. A reporter had reached out to me and it seemed like a great way to get coverage on an important topic. However, this one interview led to lots of people becoming informed on what was happening. Strong opposition began to form, and the misinformation spread like wildfire. People posted on Facebook about the bylaw and other journalists wrote articles on it, thus the opposition continued to spread. I believe that if I had stayed away from the media, there would not have been as much confusion and antagonism.
Did anything surprise you at any point during the process?
How organized the opposition was definitely took me by surprise as well as the blatant misinformation that they argued with. I did not expect to have at least one person presenting in objection to the bylaw at every precinct meeting but it kept me on my toes.
What advice would you give other people who want to pass an animal protection law in their city or town?
There are no necessary skills required to be successful in passing an animal protection law; it simply requires grit. I do not have a degree and I did not have any knowledge of my town government before filing this petition. Anyone can pass a bylaw. Connect with other people in your municipality who are involved in your local government because they can help you learn about the citizens petition process, and connect with other people who have previously passed animal protection ordinances. If you reach out to me, I am always happy to help.
How do you feel being pretty young may have impacted how your effort went, if you think it was a pro or con in any way, and what advice do you have for other young people seeking to do something like you did?
Being in a government setting as the only youth can be intimidating. As I was 18 years old when I filed the citizens petition and 19 at the time of its passage, there were definitely instances, more towards the beginning of the process, where I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to be a successful article sponsor. The truth is, though, adult citizen petitioners also don’t have the answer to every question. To any young people who would like to make change: you don’t need to know the answer to every question either. Ask for help. From teachers, to nonprofit workers, there are a lot of great people who feel encouraged by youth involvement and would be more than happy to help you.
Many town meeting members were enthusiastic that someone at a young age was getting involved with our town government as well. They knew that the bylaw I was bringing forward was one from a different perspective and I think this may have even helped with its passage. To my fellow youth, our governments are not just for grown adults. While there is an age requirement to vote and run for office, there is no age requirement to be involved, like with helping a citizens petition get passed. A democracy is not a democracy if an entire age group is not participating. So ask for help when you need it and your work can go a long way. You can always reach out to me as well.