Where Are They Now? Elisabeth Custalow
Among ALDF’s many efforts to support the field of animal law is our growing network of Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) chapters on law school campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada. SALDF chapters provide a forum for education, advocacy, and scholarship, aiming to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. In this continuing series of updates on former SALDF members, ALDF is proud to spotlight Elisabeth Custalow.
For Elisabeth Custalow, animal law is a profession that reflects who she is as a person. This passion has pushed her to inspiring heights. Just a few years after receiving her J.D. from the University of Virginia, Elisabeth is now not only an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for the city of Hopewell, Virginia, but also the Executive Director of Four Feet Forward. As an attorney, Elisabeth prosecutes misdemeanors and felonies and writes appeal briefs.She serves on sexual assault, domestic violence, and juvenile justice committees, and handles the legal proceedings in animal cruelty crimes in the city of Hopewell.
Elisabeth didn’t start out in law, however, and she draws on her English degree from the College of William & Mary as a legal advocate for animals. Writing skills help lawyers present the most convincing cases, and, as she says, “the law relies on language.” Elisabeth notes that while the facts in any case are important, the power of the advocate to present the facts persuasively and show the spirit of a statute can determine legal decisions.
Wanting to make a difference in the world, Elisabeth serves on a sexual assault working group that brings together professionals from social services, victim’s advocates, law enforcement representatives, and sexual assault nurse examiners. Together, they map out better ways to respond to sexual assault crimes, improve training for law enforcement personnel, and establish effective investigations. As she notes, individuals prosecuted for domestic violence are frequently later investigated for animal welfare issues, because many abusers lack empathy for both human and animal victims.
Elisabeth feels compelled to help animals. “I don’t feel like I chose it, I just feel like I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do it.” Doing so has been in her heart as long as she can remember; from carrying bugs out of the house, rather than squashing them, to protecting animals from school bullies on the playground. Animals deserve our protection, she says, not because they are cute or smart or because they can help us or bring us pleasure, but because they deserve it simply by existing. She dreams of opening an animal sanctuary someday, and has been rescuing animals as long as she can remember.
In November of 2012, she became Executive Director of Four Feet Forward, an organization which coordinates with nonprofit animal advocacy organizations to provide pro bono assistance from professional consultants in various fields. Some of these donated services include assistance filing “501c3” nonprofit applications, website designs, accounting services, fundraising, and nonprofit management. As executive director, Elisabeth formulates and carries out the organization’s vision. She notes that members of the Board of Directors are passionately committed to working on behalf of animals and all are nationally accomplished. Carter Dillard, ALDF Director of Litigation, is co-founder of Four Feet Forward and serves on the Board.
Elisabeth completed an ALDF-funded externship with Steve Wise and clerked with ALDF after law school. With ALDF, Elisabeth wrote a memo about the treatment of elephants at the Seattle Woodland Park Zoo. She also wrote a memo on a proposed ordinance in West Hollywood that would ban the selling of puppy mill-bred dogs. She focused on commerce clause implications in the proposed ban and noted it would pass constitutional muster; West Hollywood has since passed the ordinance.
Such pro bono work allows lawyers the opportunity to do important work on behalf of animals and be connected to animal law. Many people are passionate about animal law, Elisabeth notes, but there are only so many jobs. Donating services to animal law cases provides beginning lawyers with opportunities that might not be available to them otherwise—including more direct involvement in court proceedings.
“It is such a pleasure to see Elisabeth’s development as an attorney as well as her stalwart leadership in animal advocacy,” says Pam Hart, director of ALDF’s Animal Law Program. “ALDF is grateful for the invaluable assistance she provided with our legal cases for the protection of animals.”
Elisabeth lives with an English bulldog named Winston. She also has two horses: a quarter-horse thoroughbred cross named Emma, and—a thoroughbred named Breezy. Breezy had been starving when Elisabeth and her mother rescued her, and they hoped to simply provide Breezy with a good life for her few remaining months. That was 10 years ago. Breezy is now fat and happy, and living in Virginia.