Liza Oliver Leads Ban on Fur in Wellesley, Paving the Way for Massachusetts
In October of 2020, Wellesley became the first municipality outside of California to ban the retail sale of fur. Advocate Liza Oliver spearheaded this campaign by immersing herself in the issue, and learning what it takes to pass a bylaw in a municipality with a representative town meeting style of government. Read on to learn about her success and her biggest takeaways.
What made you interested in this issue? What led you to decide to pursue a bylaw?
I became very interested in a fur ban after learning of the fur ban that was being legislated in California in 2019, which was ultimately successful. I have been involved with animal rights for much of my adult life, but I never thought I would see in my lifetime a complete ban of a previously widespread animal product. Knowing that it was possible with fur led me to file a citizens petition for a fur ban in Wellesley, with the hope that it would be the first of many dominos leading to a statewide ban here in Massachusetts.
Did you have any mentors and/or people in town government to help you understand the process?
Early in the process I met with the town clerk, who was incredibly helpful in clarifying the process and the required steps leading up to the vote at annual town meeting. I also met with a member of the select board who informed me about government and non-government organizations I should reach out to both as a courtesy and in the hopes of garnering their support.
What did you do to prepare for introducing this as a citizens petition? Did you conduct research, talk to other people in town, etc?
Firstly, I learned the issues and facts of the fur industry inside and out. I focused not just on animal cruelty, but on other less-frequently considered aspects of the fur industry such as its environmental impact, with the hope of encouraging the broadest possible audience to support it. To this end, I also made it a point either to present before or to write to a broad range of government committees and non-profit citizens groups to highlight to them where their commitments aligned with a fur ban. These included the Select Board, the Natural Resources Commission, the Department of Health, the Energy Committee, Sustainable Wellesley, and the League of Women Voters.
What were the biggest challenges in the process?
The biggest challenge in the process was the merchants’ association in town. Early on, I informed them of the fur ban and sent them a survey to gauge their questions and concerns. They told me they didn’t involve themselves in town political matters and were therefore neutral on the fur ban. But this turned out to be a bit of a ruse. A key part of the process is the public hearing by the town’s Advisory Committee, which votes to either recommend or not recommend each article in the town warrant. After the public hearing ended and the day before Advisory was scheduled to vote on my article, the merchants’ association reached out to Advisory claiming they were never properly notified of the ban and therefore requested a delay to the vote so they could oppose it before Advisory.
The citizens petition lost a lot of momentum because of this, and it ended up receiving a split vote that the chair had to break. The chair voted against it, so Advisory did not recommend that town meeting members vote in favor of the bylaw.
The second challenge was Covid-19, which required that annual town meeting be delayed indefinitely. This made the citizens petition into a much longer haul than I originally anticipated and resulted in some logistical snags with new committees in place by the time the new town meeting was scheduled. Ultimately, though, what the Covid crisis across mink farms made clear was how harmful the cruel conditions of fur farms are to both human and non-human health.
What were the main arguments from the opposition and how did you counter them?
The main arguments were: 1) this is overreach and should be left to the market and to personal consumer choice to decide, 2) it’s a slippery slope that will lead to many other bans on animal products, 3) there’s enough fur in Wellesley that banning it would hurt businesses, 4) there’s too little fur in Wellesley so banning it would just be a pointless symbolic measure.
Regarding the last two, they are obviously contradictory, and I pointed this out in conjunction with the abundance of evidence that shows going fur free actually helps businesses. Regarding the “slippery slope” argument, I emphasized that a fur ban is only possible because the majority of citizens support it. It isn’t possible to get bans passed that aren’t already broadly supported by a large majority. (Even then it’s really hard!) So, a ban on another animal product isn’t automatically going to happen because a fur ban opened the door for it. Rather, it will happen when the majority of the population is ready for it to happen.
Regarding the issue of overreach and choice, I reminded them that it’s actually not our choice to do whatever we want to non-human animals for the sake of preference; that’s why animal welfare legislation exists to begin with and it is constantly evolving to account for where we are morally as a society. Laws, not markets, should dictate whether we have the right to torture sentient beings for trivial preferences. In light of the Covid pandemic on mink fur farms and the fact that minks were transmitting it back to humans, I also highlighted how shortsighted it is to argue for the personal choice to buy products from an industry that is proven to put all our health at risk.
Given that Wellesley has a representative town meeting form of government, what tactics do you think were most effective to reach/influence the 230 town meeting members?
I started a Facebook page early in the process where I posted news regarding the fur industry, and I built a webpage where I provided the complete wording of the bylaw, a link to informational slides, and videos of recent undercover footage from fur farms.
Thanks to the MSPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, all of whom were supporters of this citizens petition, we were able to carry out a pretty effective letter writing campaign to reach all 230 town meeting members with multiple letters. My letter provided answers to common questions. The joint letter by the MSPCA, HSUS, and ALDF highlighted some industry facts. And other letters went out from two key town residents concerned with the treatment of non-human animals. Additionally, several Wellesley residents wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper, and many environmentally conscious and animal-friendly town residents and Wellesley College students wrote emails to a list-serv for town meeting members urging support for the bylaw.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I was blindsided by the merchants’ opposition because they initially said that they weren’t going to get involved, so I wish I had anticipated and prepared for that a bit more. Relatedly, I would also be more careful about what I post to the Facebook page regarding exactly where I was in the process. I think some merchants were watching that, which is how they knew to intercede with Advisory exactly when they did despite their not having shown up to the public hearing as would have been the normal process. Even though the all town meeting information is available online and merchants could have known where we were in the process if they had looked for it, I didn’t need to make it so easy for them.
What advice would you give other people who want to pass a fur ban in their city or town?
I think the final vote by Wellesley town meeting members (140 in favor; 64 opposed; 2 abstaining) despite an initial unfavorable Advisory Committee vote and despite strong merchant opposition really shows that most people want fur bans to happen. So, don’t let the opposition and hurdles dissuade you. Also feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll provide you with all of my resources so you don’t have to start from scratch.