Celebrating 30 Years of Animal Legal Defense Fund

Posted 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…

11 thoughts on “Celebrating 30 Years of Animal Legal Defense Fund

  1. Steve Wise says:

    As a Johnny-Come-Lately in 1981, I was not present at the Creation. I have always assumed that Joyce Tischler said, “Let there be Attorneys for Animal Rights.” And there was. I was there when AFAR’s name was changed to the “Animal Legal Defense Fund,” for that took place in my living room amongst the rolled-up sleeping bags that passed for overnight accomodations for the board in those early days. I was making Joyce Tischler another sandwich in the kitchen during the final vote. AFAR/ALDF was a terrific idea, one whose significance has grown over the years, an idea that will reverberate deep within the future history of the struggle for the legal rights of nonhuman animals. As much as I gave to ALDF over the years in which I was president, I confess that it always returned much more to me. Had I not existed, the world would be the same. Not true for ALDF. Happy 30th.

    Steve Wise, former ALDF president

  2. Bruce Wagman says:

    I learned about animal law because of ALDF; I started to practice animal law because of ALDF; and now animal law is my life and career, all thanks to the pioneering work of ALDF. ALDF was there at the very beginning and remains a potent force for positive change for animals, and I’m honored to be a part of it. Bruce Wagman, chief outside litigation counsel, ALDF and partner at Schiff Hardin LLP

  3. Skip Trimble says:

    I remember my first encounter with ALDF. Joyce Tischler, Steve Ann Chambers and Stephanie Nichols Young were tabling at an animal welfare event in Washington, DC in 1993. They convinced me to be a part of ALDF. I spent the next 15 years as a board member and loved every minute of it. ALDF had done wonderful things before I joined and has continued high achievements since. I’m glad to have been a part of the last half of ALDF’s history. Robert “Skip” Trimble, retired board member

  4. Katie Brophy says:

    Because of ALDF, my reason for attending law school has become a reality. The results of the last 30 years have been unprecedented and I expect the next 30 will bring even greater benefits to the animals. Thanks Joyce and ALDF. Katie Brophy, Attorney and ALDF Board of Director, Louisville, Ky

  5. David Favre says:

    In the beginning there was only Joyce who was willing to work for the hope a future salary. I was part of the support team to move the organization forward, and remember well that first grant that we got with the help of HSUS. Each decade the world has become more complex as has the efforts of ALDF. Cannot wait to see what the next decade will bring. David, Retired Board member

  6. Lisa Franzetta says:

    I’m so grateful for all of ALDF’s amazing work to help cows, pigs, dogs, cats, rats, chickens, horses, and all animals anywhere in need of a good lawyer. I hope thirty years from now finds an army of animal attorneys ready to fight on behalf of their clients in every courtroom in America! Lisa Franzetta, Oakland, CA

  7. Pamela Frasch says:

    I’ll never forget the day in early 1993 when I found out about ALDF through a partner at my law firm in San Francisco who was then on the Board of ALDF. She invited me to meet Joyce and the rest of the Board at dinner a few days later, and my fate was sealed. (Joyce, not to mention Sarah Luick, can be VERY persuasive). I couldn’t believe that there existed this organization of attorneys dedicated to bettering the lives of animals and who worked, every day, to create a world where the interests of animals are considered in the legal system. Yup. I was a goner and I know I’m not alone in having this experience. ALDF has provided the structure and the opportunity for numerous legal professionals to fulfill lifelong dreams of helping animals. So, Happy Anniversary ALDF! Here’s to the next 30 years of ground-breaking animal advocacy. Pamela Frasch, Assistant Dean, Animal Law Program and Executive Director, Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark in collaboration with the Animal Legal Defense Fund

  8. Peter Sankoff says:

    Happy Anniversary! It is always inspiring to read about the history of the ALDF and see how a small number of dedicated individuals were able to effect significant change. Please do not ignore the impact you’ve had overseas as well. While ALDF does not work directly with those of us operating abroad, its very existence has been significant in inspiring us to get organized and attempt changes of our own. Without the ALDF and its efforts, it is unlikely that the movement in Australia and New Zealand would be as strong as it is today. For that, I wanted to say thanks! Peter Sankoff, Faculty of Law, University of Auckland, New Zealand

  9. Sarah Luick says:

    I congratulate ALDF on its remarkable achievements. I’m so proud and grateful for my long term connection with ALDF. The people I’ve been privleged to work with over the years on the ALDF Board included the pioneers strategists in animal law, all so talented and committed to using the law to make a difference for abused and neglected animals. Thank you to Joyce and her vision, to David, Roger, Jolene, Larry, Richard, Ken, Stephanie, Katie, Steve Ann, Skip, Pamela, my more recent fellow Board members, our talented staff and counsel, to all the energetic SALDFs, to our supporters who share the dream of ensuring an ever more humane world, and a special thanks to Steve Wise who encouraged me to get involved beyond our Boston Chapter of ALDF after working on the Provimi Veal case to join in the national effort. Wow, what a ride it has been. Happy 30th Birthday ALDF.
    Sarah Luick, long time Board member

  10. What do you do for burros now?

  11. We are not currently litigating a burro case, but if you have a burro related question, please send it to us at info@aldf.org and we can forward it to attorneys specializing in that area now.

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