Winter 2012 Magazine
RALPH AND CELINA LEVINE:
Two people willing to give up all their time and energy to advocate for those who can't speak for themselves. Must be passionate, tactful, tenacious, organized, willing to work with everyone, and have the ability to bring people together for a cause. Must have a vision for making animals' lives better. Must never take "No" for an answer. Must work for no compensation.
This describes the job Celina and Ralph Levine, the founders of PAW - People for Animal Welfare, set for themselves. They are advocates in the truest sense of the word. When they plead animal causes, people listen and the animals benefit.
Prior to deciding that animal advocacy would be their calling in New Mexico, they had active careers in New York City. Celina taught Kindergarten - 2nd grade children from underprivileged, inner city backgrounds. She created parent workshops and kept in phone contact with parents to form a team approach in bringing children up to grade level and beyond.
Ralph worked for the Department of the Army on nuclear weapons' testing programs. After they moved to New Mexico, Ralph worked in the Department of Energy (DOE) and became Director of the DOE's Quality and Surveillance Division.
When they retired, they volunteered to walk dogs at the Albuquerque Eastside Animal Shelter. "It was heartbreaking," Ralph said. "We took the dogs into a play area where they could run around but they didn't. They just sat next to us wanting attention. I couldn't continue working there. It was too heart wrenching."
Celina read Councilwoman Sally Mayer was re-writing the Albuquerque animal ordinance.
"I thought Sally was doing something different from what had been done before," Celina said. "She was very concerned about the high euthanasia rate in Albuquerque and she wanted to eliminate the reason for the euthanasia. She was getting to the root of the problem, not just putting a Band-Aid on it. She wanted to fix it. I'm solution oriented and I wanted to get to the root of the problem, too."
Celina asked whether she could make up petitions asking for signatures from the people who agreed with the need for the ordinance.
"I think Sally thought we'd get 20-30 signatures," Celina explained. "She said that would show the City Council there was public interest. I began asking shelter volunteers to sign and make more petitions to give to their friends and relatives. Suddenly we had 100 signatures so we thought we could go beyond 100. We started putting petitions in vegetarian restaurants, adoption clinics and anywhere animal people might gather. It was really difficult to stop. By the end we had 4,500 signatures."
Mayer's term ended before the Council voted on the ordinance. "We put all the work on the ordinance aside to get her re-elected in 2004. It was my introduction to politics," Celina said. "I told her I wasn't interested in politics and she told me, 'You'd better get interested in politics. If you want to create change, you have to do it through politics.' We went door-to-door, put out yard signs and talked to everyone we could about the importance of getting her re-elected and we all succeeded."
Once the ordinance was written, the City Council needed to pass it. Celina began calling shelter volunteers who signed the petitions. She told them they were forming a group called PAW to help get the HEART ordinance passed and asked whether they wanted to join. Then she told them they hoped to have a lot of people at the Council meeting where the ordinance would be discussed so the councilors realized this ordinance had considerable support in the community.
"Before this there was a huge disconnect between the animal side and the political side. Politics wasn't catching up with what the animal people knew was needed until Sally Mayer came along. She always told us we couldn't be sure how much support we had in the Council until they voted," Celina said. "That's why it was so important for our supporters to be present at the Council meetings to show support for the animals. The Councilors saw a lot of people who cared about the ordinance and who were watching what the Council was doing."
At the May 1, 2006, Council meeting, Ralph spoke in favor of the ordinance and presented the petitions with thousands of names on them. He also asked people in the audience to stand up if they supported the ordinance. Several hundred supporters stood. All had red shirts and red baseball caps on. "It was a terrific visual image," Ralph said.
Ralph began sending out six to eight emails a year to PAW members. He asked people to call or email their Councilor to make their voice heard on whatever animal issue was being discussed. People from PAW continued to show up at the Council meetings. A City Councilor might get 200 emails and phone calls after one of Ralph's alerts to the PAW membership. "That's an impressive number," Ralph said. "It makes them listen to us."
Once the HEART ordinance passed, PAW's work with the City changed into making sure the ordinance was enforced. Ralph believed the best way to do this was to begin endorsing candidates. "PAW is not a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit group. We wanted to endorse candidates and do advocacy. Advocacy is our sole purpose." Ralph said.
"We meet with the candidates. If an incumbent supports what we are doing, we support him/her. If we don't agree with an incumbent and there is a challenger who is more animal-friendly, we'll support the challenger. Our main mission is keeping the HEART ordinance intact. We ask candidates if they will continue to support it as it is now instead of amending it. We are a totally non-partisan, one-issue group. When it comes to animals and local elections, a lot of people will vote solely on the basis of that one issue," Ralph said.
Following passage of the HEART ordinance, there was an attempt to remove $5.1 million from the City's capital improvement budget that was earmarked for the shelter's renovation program. PAW went into action again with members contacting their Councilors. On the day of the Council meeting, the Councilors put out a press release saying the $5.1 million had been restored. But the animal advocates showed up in force at the meeting anyway. One of the newspapers dubbed the animal advocates a "freshly minted political class."'
"There are very few people I meet who don't genuinely care about the well-being of an animal," Ralph said. "But they're busy and don't think about it. They hope someone else will do it. But if you care about animals, the way to make change for the better is through advocacy. The way to stop the overload of puppies and kittens is through legislation and the way to get legislation is advocacy. To me that is the only way to make lasting progress. We were in the majority but it's been a silent majority. Now is our chance to no longer be silent."
PAW's next effort was working with the Bernalillo County Commission to get an animal ordinance, similar to HEART, passed in the County. This was accomplished using the same techniques of getting to know Commissioners, encouraging PAW supporters to show up at County Commission meetings and filling Commissioners inboxes with emails and phone calls about the need for the ordinance. This wouldn't have been possible without the tenacity of volunteers who researched animal ordinances and aided with knowledge of conditions in the field. The County ordinance passed in April, 2011.
The City Councilors and County Commissioners told Ralph he didn't need to bring everyone with him to every meeting any more. When they saw him, they knew there was massive support behind his proposals.
Currently, Ralph is working to get leg-hold traps banned. "To me, they are a criminal act. I think a candidate who believes in their use is not humane and shouldn't be elected. The public has a right to know a candidate's position on this."
The Levine's share a vision and have an exceptional talent for getting people from diverse backgrounds to work together. While they say they would like some time to breathe and relax now, they also are thinking of more ways to help animals.
1. Strict enforcement of the HEART ordinance.
"Enforcement is an issue all over the country. It's one thing to have an ordinance and another to enforce it," Ralph said. "That's why we ask candidates whether they will vote to continue the ordinance as it is and whether they will work to see it enforced."
2. More access to low-cost or free spay/neuter services.
"This often falls through the cracks, especially in tough economic times," Celina said. "But it is vital if we want to stop trying to solve animal overpopulation by using euthanasia."
3. Groups throughout New Mexico working with their local representatives to get animal-friendly laws passed in their area.
"If people in outlying areas could learn the mechanism we use, they could make change in their area. They need to become friendly with their elected officials, learn their positions on animal issues and if there are officials who aren't animal-friendly, replace them in the next election," Ralph said. "That's how you accomplish change."
"The animal advocate stereotype is that we only care about animals and not people," Celina said. "You need to overcome that by showing interest in the community and by being multidimensional. Show officials the safety of the community is important to you and that doing the right things for animals and community safety is directly linked. You must be interested in the issues they are interested in to forge alliances. This creates a level of mutual respect. Let them know animal people are voters and taxpayers. New Mexico is small enough that we can get to know our elected officials. But we're large enough to have a diversity of candidates running for office."
4. Animal groups must not fight among themselves.
"We need to remember we're all working so animals can have a better life. Groups will always have differences but we can learn from each other. We must build on our similarities and what we all believe in. We need to present a unified front to the world," Celina said.
Ralph agreed. "I talked to a voter who said, 'I may not agree with Sally Mayer on everything but I agree with her about 80% of the time and that's good enough for me.' That's how I feel when I'm looking at candidates or rescue groups or advocacy groups. As long as we agree on the fundamentals, that's enough for me. We should leave our egos at the door."
5. Need a large education campaign for the general public.
"We need to let everyone know we are all responsible for what happens to animals. The shelters aren't totally responsible for the high euthanasia rates, we are responsible for not spaying or neutering our animals," Celina said.
Ralph and Celina's advocacy work has been recognized throughout New Mexico. This October they received the Milagro Award for Lawmaking Advocacy from Animal Protection of New Mexico. It honored their work on the HEART ordinance and for mobilizing support for a more comprehensive Bernalillo County Animal Care Ordinance. They also received the Animal Humane Conference award for Advocacy in 2010. When presenting that award, Peggy Wiegle, Executive Director of Animal Humane | New Mexico, said, "They work with everybody and bring people with opposite views closer together." This defines the essence of their work and why they are so successful.
The Levine's share their home with three rescue dogs. Harley, a seven-year-old bearded collie/soft wheaten terrier mix is from the Westside shelter, black and white Quincy is mostly Lhasa Apso and Keno, a senior standard Schnauzer, came from an elderly neighbor who could no longer keep him.
When asked why they do this work, Celina replied, "I think we all have a mission. We have an obligation to leave the world better than we found it. You need to do what you are passionate about. I've always felt a special obligation to help those who couldn't speak for themselves. The most vulnerable among us are animals. They can't speak but they can suffer. The way we treat those who are weaker or disabled or elderly or children is all related. When I was 10-years-old, I saw an abused cat on my way home from school. The sight never left me. I thought, 'When I grow up, I've got to do something so this never happens again.' I just didn't know what it would be."
This dynamic duo has helped countless animals through their advocacy and taught others to help as well. Ralph is the front man speaking before the City Council, talking with candidates and sending out alerts. Celina is the heart force behind PAW. She develops personal relationships with people while she explains how they can help animals even if they can't be a rescuer, work in the shelter or foster animals. She makes them want to flex their civic muscles, pursue what's good for animals and learn what politics done well can accomplish.
To view a video about the Levine's which was shown at the Milagro Award ceremony, go to: