In spite of being heralded as one of the most progressive cities in the United States, New York has lagged behind several other major cities in advancing the rights of animals. In fact, from 2006 to 2013, at a time when animal rights was beginning to be embraced by the mainstream public, the most powerful lawmaker in New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, blocked every meaningful legislative effort to improve even the basic welfare of animals. In recent years, however, a new crop of lawmakers in New York City has championed both animal welfare and animal rights legislation.
The City Council passed its first signature animal rights bill, a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, in 2017. To the delight of animal rights activists and many City Council members, that historic moment was upstaged on October 30th, 2019, when the Council passed a package of 11 bills and resolutions to help companion animals, wild animals and animals killed for food. During the vote, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the most animal-friendly Speaker in the Council’s history, gleefully stated, “The Council will be voting on a lot of bills – a lot of bills and resolutions that will strengthen our existing animal welfare laws in New York City.”
The most controversial of the bills was a ban on sale of foie gras in restaurants and stores. According to the New York Times, an estimated 1,000 restaurants sell foie gras in New York City, which is arguably the gastronomic capital of the country. In spite of the risk of criticism from the prominent chefs and the media, City Council Member Carlina Rivera introduced and championed the legislation.
In 2006, Council Member Alan Gerson attempted to introduce a foie gras ban, but Speaker Christine Quinn, who notoriously controlled the city’s legislative agenda, blocked it before other Council Members could even weigh in. A 2007 New York Times story about foie gras protests at Fairway made reference to this incident. In stark contrast to Speaker Quinn, the current Speaker, Corey Johnson, supported Council Member Rivera’s bill to ban foie gras sales.
While the animal rights community credits the current City Council for passing laws to protect animals, the historic foie gras bill would not have been introduced, much less passed, by the City Council, were it not for a two year campaign waged by Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR), a group that advocates for animal rights legislation in NYC. With the support of hundreds of grass roots animal rights activists, VFAR organizers Allie Feldman Taylor and Matt Dominguez partnered with animal rights groups, veterinarians, and restaurants to create a coalition of supporters who lobbied City Council members and educated the public about the cruelty associated with the production of foie gras.
After working with Council Member Rivera to get the bill introduced, VFAR supporters, led by Taylor and Dominguez, lobbied the members of the City Council’s Health Committee, which is where the bill was assigned for review. On the day of the Committee vote, the Chair, Council Member Mark Levine, made an impassioned speech suggesting that lawmakers have an ethical mandate to protect animals: “As society evolves, we have a right to expect business practices evolve as well. I am incredibly proud that this City Council has begun to put empathy for the suffering of animals front and center on our agenda, and, more importantly, that we are translating that empathy into tangible policy, smart policy for the animals in this city and beyond. And that does mean changing the food we consume and changing the food production system.”
After the votes for the foie gras ban were counted, the animal rights activists in the City Council chambers rejoiced, not only because hundreds of thousands of birds will be spared from force feeding, but also because the City Council sent a strong message to the public that lawmakers are now recognizing the plight of animals and the need for laws to protect them. “We’ve seen a tremendous shift in the compassionate consciousness of our City Council Members,” said Taylor. “It’s a new day for animal rights in New York City.”