Celebrating 30 Years of Animal Legal Defense FundPosted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on August 17, 2009
Some of us are born with a special connection to animals. As far back as I can remember animals were a very important part of my life. As soon as I was allowed to walk around the block, I was bringing home cats and injured birds. The dog we adopted when I was nine, a sheltie who I named Princess Fox, was my soul mate until her death, thirteen years later.
As I reached adulthood and thought about my career, there was no obvious fit for animals–I wasn’t good enough in science to be a veterinarian. Yet, they continued to be a large part of how I defined myself. In college, I helped run a quasi-legal on-campus cat shelter. In law school, the only law review article I wanted to (and did) write was about legal rights for animals (one of the very first to address that issue).
Graduating law school meant that it was time to grow up, get a job, pay back the loans and make my parents proud. Yet, for me, there was a nagging disconnect between what I was passionate about and what I could get paid to do. There was nothing called “animal law:” There were no jobs or classes, no casebooks, or bar sections. I got a job with a law firm and worked on real estate and business transactions, wills and contracts, all noble endeavors to be sure, but I was miserable. So, I began doing volunteer work for the Fund for Animals. Through that, I met Larry Kessenick, a partner in a San Francisco law firm who shared my desire to protect animals and establish their legal rights. Larry and I decided to see if anyone else shared our interest; we advertised in the local legal newspaper and at our first meeting, six other lawyers showed up.
Finally, the dots started to connect; finally, I belonged. That was in 1979 and for the next couple of years, we met monthly to teach ourselves about the state and federal laws relevant to animals and the overwhelming amount of abuse and exploitation that animals endure.
On a Thursday afternoon in March of 1981, I got the call that changed my life: the U.S. Naval Weapons Testing Center in China Lake, California had shot and killed over 600 feral burros and they were planning to shoot another 500 starting on Saturday morning. They would keep shooting on weekends, until they killed 5,000 burros. I wasn’t altogether sure what a burro was, but 500 of them would be dead if I didn’t do something… fast.
So, I left the office, went home to my little apartment and sat on the couch, typing pleadings on the old manual typewriter that I’d had since college (because this was before personal computers or the Internet existed). I worked through the night, piecing together a set of pleadings (court documents) in which I argued that the Navy could not kill the burros without doing a document called an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The next morning, I boarded a flight to Fresno, California to argue my case. Amazingly, the judge granted my motion for a Temporary Restraining Order – as a relatively new lawyer, I didn’t realize until much later how difficult it is to get a TRO. For the next eight months, we bargained, negotiated, cajoled and ultimately settled the case, so that not one more burro would get shot.
Because of this victory, I got a small grant from the Animal Protection Institute, which enabled me to leave the law firm and become ALDF’s first full-time employee. Our first annual budget was a whopping $12,000. Our second annual budget was much grander; well, actually it was still $12,000, but we were on our way, and the rest, as they say, is history…
It has been thirty extraordinary years since the phone call that changed my life. In that time, Animal Legal Defense Fund has sued to stop bear hunts, mountain lion hunts, the removal of wild horses from federal lands and even the “patenting” of animals. We’ve assisted prosecutors in numerous cruelty cases, rescued animals from hoarders and saved the lives of many animals, including dogs, cats, birds, chimpanzees, horses and of course, those beautiful burros. The victories have been sweet, the losses painful and I’ve learned many lessons, both personal and professional, including a few I’d like to share:
Lesson #1: If you build it, they really will come.
One person can start the ball rolling, but that’s not enough. You have to attract talented people and work with and support them in order to build a whole movement. There were only a tiny handful of us at the start. Today, through our efforts, animal law is being taught at over 100 law schools, and there are over 140 active student ALDF chapters and we’re working to double those numbers in the next few years. There are state, regional and local animal law bar sections and the Trial Tort and Insurance Practice (TIPS) section of the American Bar Association now has an animal law committee, which recently awarded me its Excellence in Advancement of Animal Law Award. Working in collaboration with Lewis & Clark Law School, we recently opened the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS), a first of its kind program that will help to further build and mainstream the field of animal law. CALS now hosts the annual moot court competition held at Harvard Law School. There are a growing number of animal law conferences where law professionals can meet to learn more about the legal issues related to animals, including our own Future of Animal Law conference that will be held on April 9-11, 2010 at the University of Chicago Law School.
Lesson #2: Most of what we’ve accomplished got done because we were too focused on the goal (or too naïve?!) to stop and think that maybe we could fail. Persistence will get you far and the animals desperately need tenacious advocates. Our legal system is stacked against the interests of animals. If we are to change the way our society, and the law, treat animals, we must do the slow, hard work of winning cases that will build greater protections for animals.
Lesson #3: The luckiest people are the ones who live their authentic lives – when the work you do is what you are truly passionate about, not what your parents want you to do, but the work that your inner voice affirms. When I saved those burros, in truth, I saved myself. It became obvious to me, and to my employers at the law firm, that my passion was not real estate. I needed to leave the law firm and take the risk of working full-time to practice animal law and build ALDF, even though I had no idea how to build an organization, not to mention, a movement. Taking risks is scary, challenging and painful. It’s also necessary if you are going to grow into the person you were meant to be and do the work you were meant to do.
So, Happy Birthday, Animal Legal Defense Fund! I’m proud of what we have accomplished and thrilled to still be a part of you. The best is yet to come…