Colorado Voters for Animals' Roland Halpern, with Fresca, left, and Reina. (Photo courtesy Roland Halpern)

Brief bio:

  • Director of legislative affairs, Colorado Voters for Animals, since 2017. CVA advocates for the humane treatment of animals and sponsors the Colorado Legislators for Animal Welfare Caucus, or CLAW, to better educate legislators and the public about animal issues.

  • Regional campaign and outreach manager, Compassion and Choices, since 2002. 

  • Formerly vice president for claims at the National Interstate Insurance Company.

  • Holds a bachelor's degree from Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, and a master’s in nonprofit management from Regis University in Denver; he is an ordained animal chaplain through the Emerson Theological Institute.

Colorado Politics: This year’s legislative session began with several animal-welfare bills in the pipeline; among them were an attempt to ban the use of exotic animals like lions and tigers in circuses, and another that, among its provisions, would have prohibited the sale of dogs and cats at pet stores. Both of those measures failed — the circus bill, in part, because the session was derailed by COVID-19. Some other proposals championed by animal-welfare advocates became law; those included a policy making it easier for restaurants to allow dogs in outdoor eating areas. What will be on the agenda for animal welfare in the 2021 session? Will the circus and pet-sales bills be back?

Roland Halpern: The Traveling Exotic Animal Safety Protection Act will be back next session. The use of wild animals in circuses is cruel and unnecessary. Some opponents argued that circuses are educational, connecting an audience that might otherwise never see elephants, tigers, etc., but at what cost? The reality is these animals often receive little or no veterinary care, are confined in cages when not performing — which is most of their lives, and perform only to avoid being whipped, tased or beaten. How can any rational person claim education trumps cruelty? And when these wild animals are no longer useful, they are discarded. The lucky ones end up at a place like The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, but most aren't so lucky.

Another postponed bill, socially conscious sheltering, will assure that every dog or cat in a shelter or rescue that is healthy or can reasonably be returned to health, and does not pose a significant behavioral risk, will be guaranteed placement in a forever home. It also assures that cats and dogs receive the medical and behavioral care they need while in a shelter or rescue. And yes, we expect a bill that will address sales of dogs and cats in pet stores, but it is still in the drafting stages.

CP: In a recent commentary in Colorado Politics, you indicated attitudes are changing throughout society about the role of pets in our daily lives. Describe that change, and tell us how it is affecting policy making.

Halpern: It’s not just pets, it’s wildlife and farm animals, too. There is an increased awareness of the role wildlife plays in keeping a biological and ecological balance, not to mention wildlife viewing contributes over $80 million annually to the economy. People are also concerned about the treatment of animals raised for food. The family farm as we once pictured it barely exists anymore. While there are some good ranchers that let their animals roam freely with access to clean air and water, 99.9% of the meat we consume comes from factory farms where animals live in tightly confined and often unsanitary conditions. I imagine just about everyone has seen a photo or video of the horrendous conditions that exist on these "farms." And let’s not forget, especially now, that many of our zoonotic diseases, those transmitted from non-humans to humans, originated from situations involving close animal confinement.

But returning to the question, pets are the most visible animals for most of us. In the United States 67% of households own some type of pet. In 1988 that figure was just 56%. On an almost daily basis new studies are published documenting the benefits of the human animal bond, especially among children and the elderly. In addition to seeing-eye dogs, we have service and therapy animals ranging from cats to horses. Universities use dogs to help students lower stress levels when taking exams, horses help individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities gain a sense of trust, security and control, and Colorado recently passed a law allowing court-facility dogs to accompany witnesses who might otherwise be reluctant testifying in court without the animal as emotional support. Schools across the country, like DU’s Institute for the Human Animal Connection (IHAC) are teaching students about the role animals play in our lives and how the connection can benefit the sick, the physically challenged, and survivors of violence and other traumas. Animal law is becoming a popular major at some law schools, and the number of attorneys specializing in animal law increases each year, and all of this is affecting policy making.

CP: Tell us about the bipartisan CLAW Caucus at the legislature. What led to its formation, and what has been the response to it so far? Which lawmakers, lobbies or other stakeholders are wariest of your agenda?

Halpern: CLAW is an acronym for the Colorado Legislative Animal Welfare Caucus. The caucus dates back to at least 2014 and was originally formed by former Rep. Beth McCann and chaired by McCann and former Sen. David Balmer. In addition to Colorado Voters for Animals, the caucus is co-sponsored by the Dumb Friends League, the Humane Society of the United States, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies (CFAWA), and the Colorado Association of Animal Control Officers, which recently merged with CFAWA. The CLAW’s purpose is to reach a bipartisan understanding about animal-welfare issues. It is now the largest caucus at the Capitol. What originally attracted just a handful of participants has grown to standing-room only audiences frequently in excess of 100 attendees.

CLAW strives to present a diverse range of animal-related topics. Some are purely educational, for example explaining what a proposed piece of legislation involves; how to report animal cruelty, or a recent Colorado Parks and Wildlife presentation that covered its efforts at protecting endangered species, both plant and animal. Other sessions are a bit more controversial, for example a discussion on the gray wolf where panelists argued both for and against reintroduction. True to the spirit of its founders, the caucus provides facts and sometimes opinions in the hope that even when there is disagreement people can come away with a better understanding and appreciation for the opposing point of view. Sometimes even consensus or compromise can be reached. If someone is wary it’s because they haven’t taken the time to understand the purpose of the caucus.

CP: Are any of the measures you advance at the statehouse as important as the budget or school finance? Do you encounter critics who say your agenda imposes on the precious little time lawmakers have as it is to attend to the bread-and-butter issues of the General Assembly?

Halpern: I haven’t personally heard anyone say that CVA’s work is frivolous or irrelevant, quite the contrary. That said, there are detractors with any piece of legislation. We need to be aware there is a well-established link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans, be they children, domestic partners or the elderly. Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general with the Department of Justice, said: “The co-occurrence of animal abuse and some forms of criminal behavior demands that we make understanding this link part of our approach to fighting crime in our society.” Nonhuman animal issues are important, and we need to acknowledge that importance — how protecting animals can protect humans. The fact every session, as far back as I can remember, has included at least one animal-related bill speaks of the importance animals play in our society.

CP: What is the ultimate agenda of a group like Colorado Voters for Animals? Is your agenda, as some contend, to develop a bill of rights for all non-humans — enforceable by law? Some would say the trajectory of your movement is to outlaw even the eating of meat. Is that fair? Would you ever support that? By the way, do you eat meat?

Halpern: Let’s back up a bit here. CVA is not trying to tell people what they should or shouldn’t eat; that is their choice. We do however hope people will do their homework and find out if their food choices came at the cost of extreme cruelty to another living being. Colorado Voters for Animals is an animal-welfare organization, not animal rights, and there is a difference. We are concerned about the welfare of animals — all animals, and we work to pass sensible animal-welfare reform. Our supporters include ethical hunters who shun killing contests, trophy hunting or trapping of animals purely for commercial purposes, such killing bobcats solely for their pelts. We have supporters who are ranchers raising their livestock on open pastures and rejecting industrialized animal agriculture. We support the “Five Freedoms,” a globally recognized standard that includes an animal's freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress.

CVA is structured differently than other animal-welfare organizations. While organizations such as shelters, rescues and sanctuaries are much needed, they deal with the symptoms of animal abuse, neglect and cruelty. CVA’s focus is on addressing the root cause of the problem to prevent, or at least lessen the incidence in the first place. We are also the only Colorado-based animal-welfare organization that can endorse candidates and contribute financially to campaigns through our small-donor committee. 

And no, I don’t eat meat. Years ago, I was visiting a farm and a cow walked over and nuzzled my shoulder. Looking at that magnificent animal I decided I did not want to sacrifice another’s life for mine. I now follow the teachings of Mr. (Fred) Rodgers: “I don't want to eat anything that has a mother.”

CP: Tell us about the pets in your life.

Halpern: I have had an appreciation for nature as far back as I can remember, whether it was catching tadpoles and watching them turn into frogs, or my own little zoo that had snakes, turtles and other things that made my mother squirm, and we had cats and dogs at various stages.

I currently have two rescue dogs that came from abusive situations. It took a full two years before one even wagged her tail, but she is still terrified at the sight of a broom. The other was so weak when we took her in she couldn’t climb a single stair. Now, she takes them in twos. I also have a rescue aquarium, but that’s another story.

CP: How did you become an advocate for animals in the first place?

Halpern: When I talk to people about the way some animals are treated I am usually met with “I don’t want to hear about it.” I was one of those people, too, until I began educating myself. I learned about the horrors of slaughterhouses; of animals being abandoned by the side of the road; of evil people doing unspeakable things to animals, and the list goes on. It made me both sad and angry and I concluded I could either continue to ignore it and thereby be part of the problem, or work to be part of the solution. Unlike human victims who can tell their stories and thereby affect change, animals can’t talk, at least not in a language we understand. Colorado Voters for Animals serves as a voice for the voiceless and a vote for the vote-less. In fact that's our motto.

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