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Celebrating the 2017 Advancement in Animal Law Pro Bono Achievement Award Winners

Posted by on November 8, 2017

2017 Advancement in Animal Law Pro Bono Achievement award winners

This past Saturday, the Animal Legal Defense Fund held its second annual Cruise for a Cause. During the event, we honored the dedicated legal professionals and law firms who help us achieve our mission to the protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. Our 2017 Advancement in Animal Law Pro Bono Achievement Awards recognize the many legal professionals across the country who have contributed to our life-saving work.

2017 Advancement in Animal Law Pro Bono Achievement Award award winner Jessica Farley. Laffey, Leitner & Goode.

Our honorees helped contribute to the more than 12,500 total pro bono hours donated to our work last year. They assisted on a wide range of cases including our work on behalf of Lucky, an Asian elephant held at the San Antonio Zoo, our lawsuit to free four tigers being held in deplorable conditions in an aquarium in Houston, Texas, and our efforts to stop the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from rubberstamping license renewals of roadside zoos it knows are not in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.

During the cruise, Tom Linney, Pro Bono Director, shared with guests some of the accomplishments of our Pro Bono Achievement Award winners in the past year. These attorneys and firms provided invaluable assistance on numerous cases such as:


  • A successful lawsuit regarding the disclosure of public records related to taxpayer-funded experiments on infant monkeys that cause extreme suffering
  • A class action lawsuit against the Barkworks pet store chain alleging Barkworks violated California consumer protection laws by tricking patrons into buying sick dogs sourced from puppy mills
  • A major victory against foie gras when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the landmark California law banning its sale
  • Our lawsuit against Monterey County, California, arguing that its contract with USDA’s Wildlife Services violated the California Environmental Quality Act because the county failed to assess the program’s environmental impacts
  • Our efforts to shut down a coyote-killing contest in Wyoming. In October, a judge issued a partial ruling in favor of the Animal Legal Defense Fund finding some of the activities associated with the event constituted illegal gambling.

These are just a few highlights of the incredible work that our pro bono network provides every year. The following is a full list of the law firms recognized in our 2017 Advancement in Animal Law Pro Bono Achievement Awards:

Capstone Law APC
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
Irvine & Conner
Laffey, Leitner & Goode
Lane Powell
Lugenbuhl, Wheaton, Peck, Rankin & Hubbard
Sandefer & Woolsey Trial Lawyers
Shearman & Sterling
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Thank you to all our award winners, and we look forward to the great work we will accomplish together in 2018!

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Cruise for a Cause 2017

Posted by on November 7, 2017

Guests enjoying Cruise for a Cause 2017

On Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 the Animal Legal Defense Fund hosted our second annual Cruise for a Cause. We recounted all of our victories for animals over the past year, discussed our plans for 2018, and enjoyed the company of fellow animal advocates—all against the beautiful backdrop of Marina del Rey. Thanks to the top-notch emcee skills of our longtime friend and award-winning actor and comedian Stephen Sorrentino, the evening was a huge success! Fighting for animals day in and day out is challenging work, so we are extremely grateful to everyone who joined us to take a moment to celebrate everything the Animal Legal Defense Fund has accomplished.



For more of our favorite moments visit the Cruise for a Cause 2017 photo gallery.

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We’re Working on a Major Change for Farmed Animals!

Posted by on November 3, 2017

Prevent Cruelty California

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is proud to join Prevent Cruelty California. This coalition is working to place a critical measure on the November 2018 ballot to upgrade California’s laws relating to the extreme confinement of farm animals. This measure is a basic way to protect some of the most abused animals in the state. It will prevent farmed animals in California from being crammed into cages so small that some animals can’t stand up or turn around. It will also ensure that food items sold in California are compliant with these modest standards, forcing out-of-state producers to change their inhumane practices, too.

Other states and food retailers have already adopted cage-free standards. It’s time for California to do the same.

If you live in California, we need your help! To make the measure successful, Prevent Cruelty California needs to collect approximately 365,000 signatures by March 2018 to be added to the November 2018 ballot.

You can sign up to volunteer as a signature collector, and join us at a kickoff event for the ballot initiative. Staff from the Animal Legal Defense Fund will be at several events, and we hope to see you there!

Join us at these events:

Animal Legal Defense Fund Downtown Los Angeles Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m.

  • San Francisco Kickoff: Monday, Nov. 13 at 6 p.m.
  • Santa Barbara: Thursday, Nov. 16th at 6 p.m.
  • Anaheim/Orange County Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 19 at 4 p.m.
  • Ventura Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 6 p.m.
  • Marin County Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m.
  • West Hollywood Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m.

To RSVP and see more kickoff event dates and see more kickoff events, visit


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New Voices in Animal Law Writing Contest: Emily Bowen

Posted by on October 30, 2017

Emily Bowen, at Ohio State Univ. Moritz College of Law

Emily Bowen, Ohio State Univ. Moritz College of Law

Emily Bowen, 2L at Ohio State Univ. Moritz College of Law, is the winner of our first New Voices in Animal Law Writing Contest! Her submission, “Friend,” beautifully details how Tilikum, an orca held at SeaWorld and the subject of the documentary “Blackfish,” impacted her animal advocacy.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is working to end orca captivity in Florida and recently proposed the Florida Orca Protection Act in conjunction with a coalition of animal protection, environmental, and marine conservation groups. The Florida Orca Protection Act would prohibit breeding captive orcas, making the orcas currently in captivity the last generation to be exploited. Additionally, the Animal Legal Defense Fund continues to fight on behalf of Lolita – a long suffering orca held alone in a cramped tank in the Miami Seaquarium. Read more about Lolita and our lawsuit alleging her cruel treatment violates the Endangered Species Act here.


When I was seven, I had a giant poster in my room above my bed with all the different species of whales. It was called “Whales of the World” and reading the fact blurbs under each of the tails was better than counting sheep. Like most children, the Bottlenose dolphin and the orca were the two that always stood out to me. I was obsessed with movies like Flipper and Free Willy, and to this day, my brother can quote parts of Flipper because of how often I asked him to watch it with me.

When I was nine, my uncle began dating a woman who worked as a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld, San Diego. I have pictures of my brother and I with our tiny hands on the back of a shiny, grey, Bottlenose dolphin that has slid–out onto the side of the tank. We attended the Shamu show, and I remember wanting so desperately to be that trainer in the sleek, black wetsuit perched atop Shamu’s nose as he sped around the tank. We sat in the “splash zone” and screamed gleefully when our seats lived up to their name.

When I was fifteen I read The Life of Pi, and for the first time I began to battle with the ethical issues of zoos and aquariums. In the book, Pi Patel is the son of a zoo owner and the author mentions that animals in zoos are happier than those who must struggle to survive in their natural habitats. The book is fiction; still, this struck me as an interesting notion. By this time, I had been to my local zoo at least four or five times, and happy is not the word I would have used for the panting tiger languishing in the dirt under one of the three trees in the enclosure.

When I was twenty, my DVR accidentally recorded the first half of the documentary Blackfish. After two minutes of watching, I quickly programed the DVR to record the second half, as well. My emotions ran the gamut as I watched scenes of calves being stolen from their mothers and 10,000 pound adult orcas forced to spend their lives in concrete cells so small that they were unable to turn around. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the documentary focused primarily on one orca- Tilikum. In Chinook, a Pacific Northwest jargon, Tilikum means friend.¹

That night, on November 3, 2013, I shared the Blackfish trailer on my Facebook page. This was an insignificant step, but my anger required me to take some sort of action, no matter how small. I found petitions online- “Free Tilikum” and “End Whale Captivity.” I signed them all and pestered my family and friends to sign them. I changed my cover photo on Facebook to a picture of an orca in the wild with the Albert Einstein quote, “Any society which does not insist upon respect for all life must necessarily decay.” I told anyone and everyone who would listen about the average life-span of a wild orca compared to a captive orca. I bombarded my friends with facts about the emotional intelligence of orcas and familial pod structures. I devoured orca documentaries on Netflix and closely followed the impact of Blackfish on SeaWorld stock and popularity.

Still, Tilikum floated in his bathtub.

Tilikum was first captured off the coast of Iceland as a young two-year old in 1983. To fully understand the impact of this capture on Tilikum, one must first know a little bit about orcas.

The orca population spans across every ocean, but each community of orcas stay within their general location. Orcas living in the Pacific Northwest never interact with those living in the Antarctic, and as a result, those pods have distinct behaviors, acoustics, and food preferences. Even pods within the same general location have distinct dialects, and tend to avoid each other. Communities of orcas have become so different that they developed to be genetically unique. Within their tight-knit families, orcas are highly social and will typically stay with their pods for their entire lives. These pods are led by a matriarch and range from two to fifteen animals. Given the size of the orca brain, scientists rank them as incredibly intelligent, and possibly even more emotionally complex than humans. Since orcas are so socially dependent, being separated from their pods causes severe stress and emotional pain.²

After being ripped from his family, Tilikum spent a year at a marine park before being transferred to Sealand.³ At Sealand, Tilikum shared a tank with two older, female orcas and was often found bloodied from teeth marks. It is likely that Tilikum and the other orcas vocalized differently and one can equate the situation to being kidnapped and held in a room with people who speak Russian when you only speak French. The Blackfish documentary follows the life of Tilikum and chronicles the deaths of three people who were attacked by him. The documentary made it clear that Tilikum’s aggressiveness was a product of unbearable boredom and psychosis brought on by confinement in an unnatural and insufficient habitat. As the largest orca in captivity, Tilikum was particularly effected by the shallow tanks and quickly developed the collapsed dorsal fin that only happens to whales in captivity because of their unnatural diet and swimming in endless circles.⁴

Tilikum suffered for twenty-five years for SeaWorld’s financial gain and his story devastated and infuriated me. I could not stop thinking about the mental and physical torture that he was enduring daily. I wanted to make a significant contribution to ending whale captivity, but I was living in Colorado at the time, so picketing at the gates of a SeaWorld was not an option. I soon realized that, short of breaking into SeaWorld and carting Tilikum off to the ocean myself, the only way to truly impact the treatment of captive animals was through legal measures.

My endless Google searches quickly uncovered the 2011 lawsuit brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against SeaWorld, in which PETA argued that SeaWorld’s despicable treatment of the orcas was a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.⁵ Tilikum was named as one of the five plaintiffs in the case. At the time of my discovery, I was still an undergraduate with little to no knowledge of the law. To me, a constitutional argument on what seemed like a cut and dry moral issue felt like a fool-proof win. Well,  unfortunately for Tilikum, the court had a less simplistic view and ruled in favor of SeaWorld. Whether PETA’s argument was sound or not, the notion that one could bring a lawsuit on behalf of an animal was eye-opening for me. Prior to this point, the only animal cases I had ever encountered were misdemeanor vicious dog cases that typically featured an abused dog who had lashed out. Even in those instances, the dog was not a party in the case. In 2013, I was still three years away from attending law school and in my ignorance, I had not realized that animal rights law was anything more than a meaningful hobby.

The more research I conducted, the more I realized that being an animal rights lawyer, whether part-time or full-time, was a viable career option. This revelation made my heart sing. After all, it is rare in this day and age that one’s passions and one’s career commingle. I also learned that there is more than one legal avenue to achieve positive change for an animal or a species. For example, while PETA chose a constitutional tactic, a more recent case against SeaWorld is for false advertising.⁶ This case was brought by four San Francisco plaintiffs who say that they purchased entry tickets to SeaWorld because they were under the impression that the company was focused on marine conservation and animal welfare. The plaintiffs claim that they were deceived by the theme park’s advertising, specifically in relation to the killer whales.⁷ On January 30, 2017, just twenty-four days after Tilikum’s death, the judge in the case denied SeaWorld’s motion to dismiss.⁸ This case taught me that being a legal advocate for animals could come in a multitude of different forms and that direct representation is not the only way to make a difference.

Tilikum’s story sparked a national outrage that has led to small victories like the pending false advertising lawsuit. Tilikum’s story also resonated with me and has followed me into my legal career. It has been four years since the night I sat on my parents’ couch with tears in my eyes as I watched images of Tilikum bobbing listlessly in his artificial prison. I am now a 2L attending The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and prior to the start of my second semester of 1L year, Tilikum died on January 6, 2017. His death was a poignant and timely reminder that I have a duty to use my future knowledge and status to assist all creatures. No animal should endure such suffering at the hands of humans, and the thought of how many long, lonely nights Tilikum spent in his confinement made his death a bitter relief.

Seeing the change that has already occurred because of Tilikum has been one of the driving forces behind my continued passion for animal rights law. For example, SeaWorld’s greed and complete disregard for the welfare of the animals was exposed and they have been forced to reevaluate their actions. This year, SeaWorld announced that they would be ending their captive breeding program of orcas. This kind of impact is one that every law student dreams of as they lay drooling on top of their Torts book. To be able to have a real, significant effect on the world would be worth so much more than simply pursuing financial wealth. To me, the road to respect for all creatures seems to be arduous and endless, but animals like Tilikum are a perfect reminder of why animal rights attorneys are so necessary. That, and animals cannot represent themselves in court.

As a continuously busy law student, I sometimes struggle to remember why I wanted to pursue a future in the legal field. Then I see a news article about an animal being exploited for human greed and I am able to refocus. I eagerly look forward to the day when I can wield the law on behalf of the voiceless and forgotten animals. Whether I contribute to the animal rights field as a full-time attorney or by taking pro bono cases, I am confident that I will be able to assist animals like Tilikum in a variety of ways.

I have grown in height and in knowledge since I was a seven-year old with a whale poster above my bed. Fortunately, my passion for animals has also grown. Someday, I hope that animal rights lawyers will have achieved freedom for all captive animals. In that future, I will take my children to see live orcas, but the view will be from a boat with ocean water lapping against the hull. I will point to the perfectly straight dorsal fins gliding through a limitless habitat and I will tell my children that this is what it means to be a friend.

About Emily Bowen:
Originally from Colorado, Emily and her husband moved to Ohio to pursue separate graduate degrees. As an avid animal lover, Emily was looking for a way to get involved after surviving 1L year, so she joined the Moritz College of Law SALDF chapter. As vice president, she is working to expand the chapter and to make it a more prominent part of the Columbus community. Emily isn’t sure what specific area of law she intends to practice after graduation, but she is certain that she will use her degree to make a positive impact on animal rights.


¹ Martin Evans, The Story Behind Tilikum the Killer Whale, THE TELEGRAPH (Feb. 26, 2010,
9:41 AM),
³ Philip Hoare, Blackfish: When Killer Whales Attack, THE TELEGRAPH (June 5, 2016, 9:00 AM),
⁴ Orca Dorsal Fin Controversy–Experts vs. Seaworld, OCEAN ADVOCATE (April 16, 2013),
⁵ PETA Sues SeaWorld for Violating Orca’s Constitutional Rights, PEOPLE FOR ETHICAL
⁶ Anderson v. Seaworld Parks & Entm’t, Inc., 132 F. Supp. 3d 1156, 1156 (N.D. Cal. 2015).
⁷ Id. at 1159.
⁸ Id.


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Inaugural Student Convention Energizes the Future of Animal Law

Posted by on October 27, 2017

Winners of the SALDF Chapter of the Year award

The first annual Animal Legal Defense Fund Student Convention hosted over 70 law students from all over the world on October 13, 2017 in Portland, Oregon! The Student Convention provided Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) members opportunities to meet and mingle before the kick-off reception for the 25th Animal Law Conference, co-presented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, and the Lewis & Clark SALDF chapter. There are now 220 SALDF chapters in the United States and internationally and these chapters consist of law students dedicated to improving the lives and advancing the interests of animals through the legal system. Chapters host speaker events, plan volunteer trips, lobby their state representatives, and so much more! Representatives from 56 SALDF chapters from the United States, Canada, India, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand were welcomed with a delicious plant-based breakfast options and gorgeous views at the top floor of the Hilton Downtown Portland.

Helping Animals in Any Career

Meg Dawson and Kathy Hessler

Meg Dawson and Kathy Hessler

For the first event, students gathered for a career panel with experts in animal law. The career panel featured professionals with diverse backgrounds and careers to show students their many options for post-graduate plans. The overall theme of the career panel was to create opportunities for yourself when you notice gaps and to not feel limited by the mindset that you must work at a non-profit to make lasting change on behalf of animals. Some of the speakers spent years doing amazing pro bono work before finding a position working exclusively with animals, such as through a solo practice. Another literally wrote her own job description to ensure that animals were being protected in her district attorney’s office. One speaker discussed the ways in which her legal education helps her every single day, even though she doesn’t practice law.  There are also opportunities to teach and lead the next generation of animal law attorneys. And those who do work at a non-profit discussed the ways they landed their positions.

“The speakers all had positive outlooks, were full of empowerment, and made me hopeful for a future that is cruelty free. I learned that we have a long way to go, but together we are getting there!” said Laurel Tallent, a 2L at Florida State University College of Law. It is this hopeful curiosity among law students that made the career panel, and Student Convention overall, so successful.

Law Students Share Their Research

Alice Di Concetto, LL.M., Lewis and Clark Law School

Alice Di Concetto, LL.M., Lewis and Clark Law School

After an inspiring career panel, students had the opportunity to hear from their peers. Earlier this year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund put out a call for papers for the second annual Law Student Scholarship Panel. This year had a specific focus on factory farm issues. Students presented  winning submissions on topics like the effect of factory farms on communities of color in North Carolina, the problem with labeling and false advertising in the egg industry, and a comparative analysis of the US and EU policies on animal welfare. It was inspiring to listen to the incredible work being done by students on such important topics within animal law. Students truly are the next generation of animal law attorneys and their accomplishments so early into their careers speak volumes on what will they will achieve in the years to come.

Joyce Tischler, Founder and General Counsel, Animal Legal Defense Fund

Joyce Tischler, Founder and General Counsel, Animal Legal Defense Fund

A Message to Mend the World

A special keynote by Joyce Tischler, founder and general counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, was the highlight of lunch. Joyce detailed her personal story of the creation and formalization of animal law and left students with a favorite phrase: Tikkun Olam, a concept from Judaism which means mending the world. “This concept encourages each of us to stretch our hearts and embrace more of this world. To stand beside the wounded and the defenseless, to embrace those who suffer, and to acknowledge and reach out to those who are ignored or abused,” Joyce explained. It was an unforgettable moment to see every single person in the room enthralled with her words and ready to do what they can to mend the world.

Joyce ended her talk by recognizing two SALDF chapters that have shown incredible efforts in advancing the field of animal law and advocating for animals through original projects and initiatives. Both Vermont Law School and University of Otago Faculty of Law were presented the Chapter of the Year Award in celebration of their recent achievements. We applaud their dedication to the field of animal law!

The Future of Animal Law is Strong

The Student Convention concluded with a chance for SALDF members to share ideas, concerns, and ask questions during the annual SALDF Summit. This is a safe space for students to dig deep and discuss difficult topics regarding advocacy efforts and ways to encourage their student body to care about animal issues.

“I felt like the Student Convention was a special moment for those of us studying animal law. We got to meet each other, collaborate, and share our ideas all with the sincere purpose of helping each other. It was inspiring, and I genuinely mean that. Although I haven’t felt unmotivated to study animal law, it definitely reinvigorated my passion for getting out there and doing what I can to help animals. Making the connections with other students was also a great opportunity that I don’t think I would have gotten elsewhere.” said Madison Steffey, a 1L at Lewis & Clark Law School. It was a very rewarding experience listening to all the great things that chapters have already accomplished this year and plan to do in the near future. It was also inspiring to see how SALDF members from different chapters empowered each other; whether it was giving advice, sharing personal experiences, or sympathizing with others’ concerns, the students really came together to unite their efforts in creating a better world for animals.

We are already looking forward to next year, and we hope to see even more students join us for a day just for them!

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Fighting On in Tony’s Memory

Posted by on October 18, 2017

During the last 48 hours since we learned of the death of Tony the tiger, everyone at the Animal Legal Defense Fund has been moved and comforted by the outpouring of love people have expressed for Tony. We fought multiple legal battles for over six years to free Tony and move him to a reputable sanctuary, and we still aren’t done. We have two Tony-related lawsuits that will continue in the wake of his passing and are seeking to learn more about how he died.

The first lawsuit seeks to uphold the constitutionality of the Louisiana Big Cat Ban, a 2006 law that prohibits the private possession of big cats. If successful, this lawsuit would ensure that Michael Sandlin, the owner of Tiger Truck Stop, cannot condemn another big cat to the kind of life Tony had. Sandlin is fighting hard to fill Tony’s truck stop parking lot cage with another tiger, and we will do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

The second lawsuit concerns the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) refusal to recognize Tony as an “individual.” In April, the Animal Legal Defense Fund requested that the USDA conduct an inspection of Tony after learning that his health was in decline. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the inspection report and requested expedited processing, which FOIA requires when delayed disclosure “could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual.” Our request for expedited processing was denied because the USDA asserted that Tony is not an “individual.” In July, we sued the USDA for failure to recognize Tony as an “individual.” A victory in this lawsuit would enable the public to quickly obtain crucial information essential to protecting an animal’s wellbeing.

In addition, in the wake of Tony’s death we have made a request under the Louisiana Public Records Act, for a copy of Tony’s necropsy (an examination to determine the cause of death or disease) performed by Louisiana State University, where Tony died. We will carefully review it to determine what caused the alleged renal failure that led to Tony’s tragic death, and ensure it was not the result of improper care or treatment.

It is a tragedy that our years of litigation could not free Tony before his death. As Tony aged and his health appeared to decline, we feared this would happen, but the Animal Legal Defense Fund does not give up. We join the many advocates across the world in remembering Tony this week, and we promise to keep you updated on our work on behalf Tony and other animals like him.

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Demanding Transparency from Cook County Animal and Rabies Control in Illinois

Posted by on September 28, 2017

On Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against the Office of the Independent Inspector General of Cook County and the Cook County Board of Commissioners demanding the release of a report that details how Cook County Animal and Rabies Control uses its taxpayer-funded multi-million dollar budget. The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois after defendants wrongly denied the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s request for the report under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We are asking the Court to force the defendants to comply with the FOIA law.

The lawsuit follows years of work by the Animal Legal Defense Fund to hold the municipal animal control agency accountable to the law. Compassionate residents of Chicago and Cook County have long been concerned about the agency’s lack of transparency. We hope this lawsuit will shed light on Animal Control’s successes and shortcomings so that the public knows what their tax dollars are paying for and exactly how the county treats animals.

Residents of Cook County: Take action now to urge the County Board of Commissioners to uphold its duty to the public and release the full report immediately.

More about this case

Cook County Animal and Rabies Control has numerous responsibilities, including operating two animal shelters within Cook County to house stray and unowned animals and ensure lost animals are safely returned home. Cook County Animal Control receives an annual budget of several million dollars to provide these services, funded through rabies tag fees paid by residents of Cook County.

For years, residents have reported that Animal Control is falling short of its responsibilities. Media coverage of the situation describes the Cook County animal control environment as a patchwork maze of municipal and nonprofit facilities where companion animals may be forever lost from their guardians despite best efforts to locate them.

Thanks to mounting pressure from the frustrated public, the County Board of Commissioners ordered the Office of the Independent Inspector General (OIIG) to conduct an operational review of Cook County Animal and Rabies Control. That operational review included an evaluation of whether the agency was appropriately using the millions of dollars a year it received from county residents’ taxes. Unfortunately, neither OIIG nor the Board of Commissioners made the full report public, only releasing a summary report. More troubling, the summary report revealed the OIIG identified violations of several laws and policies, including a need for significant improvement and increased financial and operational efficiency. The summary report does not provide any meaningful details that would provide frustrated residents with the answers they demand and deserve. In short, the OIIG is withholding the very information the public needs to hold Cook County Animal and Rabies Control accountable.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund issued a FOIA request seeking a full copy of the OIIG’s report, which was improperly denied on the basis that the full report constitutes an investigatory file exempt from disclosure. The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s new lawsuit argues that the denial of the FOIA request was improper and requests the Court to order the Cook County Board of Commissioners and OIIG to provide a full and complete copy of its operational review so that the public can examine all its findings.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund thanks its pro bono counsel Winston & Strawn LLP for its assistance in this case.

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California: One More Step to End Sales of Puppy Mill Animals

Posted by on September 25, 2017

UPDATE: On Oct. 13, 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 485 into law, making California the first state to ban retail sale of puppy mill animals. Thank you to everyone who took action to support this important law.


If you’d like to read the full text of AB 485, the bill is posted here.


We need you to call Governor Brown today and urge him to sign the bill.  Please call him at (916) 445-2841 and simply say:

Hello! I’m a constituent from [Your City] and I want to urge Governor Brown to sign AB 485 to protect both animals and consumers in California from the puppy mill industry. Thank you for your time.

You can also send an email to or a fax to (916) 558-3160.

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Joint Comment Letter Opposes National Chicken Council Petition

Posted by on September 21, 2017

Chickens in cages

The Animal Legal Defense Fund joined several other animal protection groups to submit a letter to the United States Department of Agriculture opposing a petition from the chicken industry requesting that chicken slaughter plants be allowed to slaughter chickens at higher line speeds. Currently, some chicken slaughter plants are already allowed to slaughter chickens at very high speeds of more than 140 or 175 birds per minute. The National Chicken Council petition requests that all slaughter plants be allowed to seek a “waiver” to run at any line speed they desire.

It’s common sense that when an action is performed more quickly, the rate of mistakes increases. Granting the petition would endanger worker safety, threaten food safety, and increase the number of birds who are inhumanely handled or die by means other than slaughter. When chickens move through the line too quickly, some of the chickens may miss the stunner and throat cutter. As a result, these chickens enter scalding tanks and are boiled alive. A 2015 undercover investigation inside a Tyson Foods, Inc. slaughter plant by the Animal Legal Defense Fund revealed that extremely high line speeds contributed to the suffocation of chickens caused by equipment malfunctions, endangered Tyson Foods employees, and led workers to mistakenly hang dead birds on shackles for slaughter and processing.

Granting the petition would negatively impact billions of chickens and turkeys. You can read the letter in full here.

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Case Update: Fighting USDA for Animal Welfare Records

Posted by on September 21, 2017

In early 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suddenly removed public access to thousands of animal welfare reports concerning enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), a federal law that regulates research labs, puppy mills, zoos, circuses, and more. The Animal Legal Defense Fund pledged to sue the USDA, and we did.

A court recently decided to dismiss our lawsuit. Last week we filed an appeal of that decision.

Our lawsuit argued that removing access to the database violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the judge dismissed on the grounds that FOIA does not provide a remedy to enforce the USDA’s obligation to publish records.

The judge also dismissed our claims under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which allows courts to set aside agency actions if they are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” Without addressing whether the USDA’s action was arbitrary or capricious, the court dismissed our claim on the basis that FOIA provides an adequate remedy.

In other words, the court decided that the Animal Legal Defense Fund should submit traditional FOIA requests to the USDA if we want to see any records. Our appeal argues that forcing animal protection organizations to rely on individual FOIA requests is a significant burden. Records that were previously immediately accessible at no cost now require every animal protection organization to manage voluminous FOIA requests that take months, even years, to process. Not to mention the possibility of large fees.

We want you to have the latest information on this case because we know how important it is to you, and to the animals we fight for using the evidence from animal welfare records.

We won’t ever give up on fighting for the animals.

Join Our Fight For Transparency

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The Border Wall: Disastrous for Wildlife

Posted by on September 14, 2017

Two black bears

The United States is rich in biodiversity, but the wildlife and ecosystems we share with Mexico are continually endangered by climate change and human encroachment on wildlife habitats. In January, the federal government announced that it would replace the San Diego border wall  with a staggering 30-foot wall — potentially made of impermeable concrete—as well as building multiple sections of new prototype walls near the Otay Mesa border crossing. These projects are the first of the government’s recently funded border wall construction.

In an effort to evade compliance with vital environmental laws and regulations, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security invoked the waiver components of a 2005 immigration law known as the REAL ID Act with regard to the San Diego wall construction as well as an area of wall near Calexico, California. The agency asserts that this law provides it a waiver for compliance with numerous laws enacted to protect both our environment and endangered species, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. But the scope of the Real ID Act’s waiver provision was very limited, authorizing waiver only for very specific portions of wall that were required to be “expeditiously constructed” within a few years of the passage of that 2005 law.

The waiver of these decades-old environmental laws threatens the animals living in habitats that transverse the U.S.-Mexico border. To protect our ecosystems and the animals that call them home, the Animal Legal Defense Fund joined litigation brought by a coalition of wildlife protection groups that include Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The lawsuit argues that the agency’s attempt to waive the laws is illegal—and it is overreaching with its interpretation of the act.

This Is a Critical Case to Protect Environmental and Animal Laws

These wall construction projects—which are now slated to begin as early as November—are the first attempt to use the REAL ID Act of 2005 to waive environmental protection laws to allow construction of the border wall. The determination of the legality of the agency’s effort to waive animal and environmental protection laws will have implications—as this project proceeds—across the more than one thousand miles of the proposed border wall. Further, this decision will impact how the federal government is required to treat animals and the environment in future policy decisions.

The Wall’s Victims

The border wall would divide animal families, interfere with breeding and migratory patterns, and potentially result in the extinction of many of the more than one hundred endangered or threatened species that call the border area their home. To thrive, animals need access to the full range of their habitats. Barriers that isolate groups of animals also lead to inbreeding, which decreases genetic diversity and ultimately puts species at risk of extinction. Unimpeded migration is essential to gene flow.  Additionally, many animals will suddenly find their natural migration routes impassable. Species across the animal kingdom are genetically programmed to migrate to find more hospitable weather and food or to mate. Disrupting or permanently severing natural migration routes would be disastrous for countless species, some whom travel thousands of miles every year.

The Specific Animals Impacted

The impact on the San Diego area alone includes wetlands, meadows, and coastal land. Just a few of the species jeopardized by construction include the western snowy plover, a threatened shorebird, as well as the endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly and California least tern.

A full wall extending across the border between the United States and Mexico would additionally compromise dozens more endangered or threatened species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 100 endangered, threatened, or near-threatened species would be impacted. Animals including Mexican gray wolves, jaguars, and ocelots may go extinct as a result.

For example, Sky Islands, a region that straddles the Arizona-Mexico border, is home to over 7000 different animal and plant species, including black bears and mountain lions. It is one of the most biologically rich areas in the country. Some fencing already exists in the region, and additional construction would further imperil the Sky Islands. The endangered Sonoran Pronghorn is another victim of humanmade barriers, and its future is uncertain. The Sonoran Pronghorn exists at a critically low number, and they require the ability to migrate across country borders to survive. Additional construction in the Sonoran Desert would fatally compromise their ability to forage for food and find mating partners.

Respect Our Laws

The federal government must respect its own laws and consider the impact that construction will have on our environment. The Animal Legal Defense Fund is committed to protecting our native wildlife and will continue to fight to keep their habitats safe.

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Join us at the Animal Legal Defense Fund Student Convention!

Posted by on September 12, 2017

Law students: We are excited to invite you to Animal Legal Defense Fund’s first ever Student Convention! The Convention will take place on the Friday leading up to the Animal Law Conference on October 13, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. At the Convention, you will meet and receive advice from leaders in the animal law field on how to make animal law a part of your career. From criminal to solo to pro bono turned non-profit, there is a way to do what you love in a way you’ll love. The Convention also includes a keynote by Animal Legal Defense Fund founder, and “the Mother of Animal Law,” Joyce Tischler.

You will learn about factory farming and the law from your peers through the Law Student Scholarship Panel. During the SALDF Summit, you will meet Student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapter members from different schools across the world to share ideas and discuss your chapters’ successes and any issues you have encountered. We will also let you know about our resources and opportunities for law students, such as our clerkships, our Advancement of Animal Law Scholarships, SALDF project and travel grants, and more!

The Convention is free for law students! Please RSVP by October 1, 2017 to secure your spot as space is limited. We hope to see you there!

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California Supreme Court Reverses Protections for Elephants Confined at Los Angeles Zoo

Posted by Nicole Pallotta, Academic Outreach Manager on September 8, 2017

Asian elephants at the zoo

“All is not well at the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. Contrary to what the zoo’s representatives may have told the Los Angeles City Council in order to get construction of the $42 million exhibit approved and funded, the elephants are not healthy, happy, and thriving.”– Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal

The above is an excerpt from an opinion issued after a six-day trial in July 2012, in which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal harshly criticized the Los Angeles Zoo for its treatment of Billy, Jewel, and Tina, the three elephants in its care. Though he declined to send the elephants to a sanctuary, Judge Segal issued an injunction aimed at improving their well-being. In May 2017, the California Supreme Court unanimously overturned that injunction.

The 2012 injunction prohibited the use of “bull hooks and electric shock in the management, care, and discipline of the elephants” and required the zoo to provide at least two hours of exercise a day on soft ground to protect the animals’ feet and joints. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with other groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), submitted amicus briefs in support of retaining the injunction.

The injunction was reversed on procedural grounds rather than on the merits of the case. As explained by the Los Angeles Times: “The highly technical ruling said a taxpayer lawsuit, which relies on rules of civil law, cannot be used to stop criminal conduct. The suit that led to the injunction against the zoo accused it of violating a criminal law against animal cruelty.”

The original complaint was filed in 2007 by taxpayers against the City of Los Angeles (which owns and operates the Los Angeles Zoo) and John Lewis, the zoo’s director, to enjoin what they argued was abusive, damaging and wasteful behavior by the Los Angeles Zoo regarding its Elephants of Asia exhibit. The plaintiffs’ theory was that the city’s criminal mistreatment of the animals, particularly its violation of California Penal Code section 596.5, which specifically prohibits the abuse of elephants, amounted to an illegal and wasteful use of public funds.

The July 2012 Injunction and Opinion

In an eloquent 56-page opinion accompanying the 2012 injunction, Judge Segal agreed with the plaintiffs on major points regarding the elephants’ inadequate living conditions and roundly criticized Los Angeles Zoo officials for being “delusional” about the animals’ well-being. He singled out the senior elephant keeper in particular for having “shocking gaps in her knowledge” and “surprising misconceptions” about elephant behavior.

A central point in the trial, argued by zoo employees but corroborated by none of the elephant experts who testified, was whether the animals’ repetitive head-bobbing – a stereotypic behavior widely recognized by ethologists as an indicator of frustration, boredom, and stress in captive animals – was in fact a sign of happiness. One of the many incorrect assertions made by the senior elephant keeper during her testimony was that this disturbing head-bobbing, which is not seen in wild elephants, is similar to a dog’s excited tail wag, a particularly preposterous assertion given the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Judge Segal did not mince words when he called her belief an “anthropomorphic fantasy.” He also said it was “particularly disturbing” that someone with such misguided and uninformed opinions was the senior employee in charge of caring for the elephants and essentially controlling their lives in captivity.

In contrast, the court credited the testimony of Dr. Joyce Poole, a renowned elephant expert, for her extensive knowledge and experience and called her the most credible witness regarding elephant behavior. She testified that head-bobbing and other stereotypic behaviors seen in Billy, Tina, and Jewel, like swaying and rocking back and forth in place, is never seen in wild elephants as an expression of excitement or happiness, and that to the contrary these behaviors unequivocally show the zoo is not meeting the animals’ needs.

Judge Segal agreed, writing movingly about the substandard conditions these highly intelligent and sensitive animals are forced to endure:

“Thus, the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is not a happy place for elephants…Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional. And the quality of life that Billy, Tina, and Jewel endure in their captivity is particularly poor.”

Although he poignantly concluded that the elephants’ existence was “empty, purposeless, boring, and occasionally painful,” Judge Segal stopped short of ruling conditions at the zoo were abusive. In reaching this conclusion, he noted that section 596.5 of the penal code did not define “abusive behavior,” and that this lack of clarity made it difficult to know which behaviors were prohibited by law and what standard to use in deciding whether the zoo’s treatment of the elephants rose to the level of abusive behavior. Although agreeing that life for Billy, Tina, and Jewel at the zoo was essentially miserable, he concluded that the zoo’s conduct was not cruel beyond the “ordinary” circumstances of captivity:

“This case raises the question of whether the recreational or perhaps educational needs of one intelligent mammal species outweigh the physical and emotional, if not survival, needs of another. Existing California law does not answer that question.”

He did however, rule that the use of bullhooks (a fireplace poker-like device used to strike elephants), electric shocks, and other methods of discipline were abusive and inappropriate under penal code section 596.5. Though the zoo argued it had voluntarily stopped using these methods, the court was skeptical of this claim given the timing and manner of the stated cessation (which occurred only during litigation). Noting that statements of the zoo director during trial did “not inspire confidence in his commitment,” Judge Segal determined the injunction was necessary to ensure compliance, since the zoo could resume these methods as soon as litigation ended.

He also found plaintiffs had met their burden to prove that the zoo was in violation of penal code section 597t, which requires confined animals have an adequate exercise area. Rather than sending the elephants to a sanctuary, which Judge Segal wrote was a “bit much,” the court’s remedy was to increase their exercise time in their current area and mandate the soil be rototilled to make it softer.

Although the ruling unfortunately did not send Billy, Tina, and Jewel to one of the two reputable sanctuaries suggested by plaintiffs, the injunction was a positive step. In light of the California Supreme Court’s reversal, advocates are now left hoping the zoo will voluntarily adhere to these provisions, which it has said it will do. The use of bullhooks to control elephants was banned in California in 2016, and the zoo has said it no longer uses electric shocks and will continue to adhere to the exercise provisions mandated by the now defunct order.

Do Elephants Belong in Zoos?

It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a captive setting to replicate an elephant’s natural habitat, in which they walk up to 18 hours a day, maintain complex social relationships, and live in extended family units. However, reputable sanctuaries do a much better job replicating natural conditions than even the most well-equipped zoo, which simply cannot provide adequate space or come close to approximating the richness and complexity of elephants’ lives in the wild. With almost every natural instinct thwarted, and denied autonomous social interaction with other members of their species,[1] these cognitively and emotionally sophisticated animals suffer tremendously in zoos.

It is also important to note that while the historical transformation of the modern zoo has included replacing iron bars with more “naturalistic” exhibits, these changes lack substance and are more set design for the audience than meaningful improvements for the animals. Putting captive animals in more natural-looking settings is in part savvy marketing intended to assuage the unease of zoo-goers, who have become increasingly uncomfortable seeing wild animals in captivity.

Judge Segal’s opinion starkly and sadly drove this point home with regard to the exhibit in which Billy, Tina, and Jewel are on display. Although the trees give a natural impression to zoo-goers, the average visitor likely does not realize those trees are surrounded by electrical wires so the animals can’t even enjoy them or partake in natural behaviors:

“…[T]he available surface area for the elephants is much smaller than the total exhibit space because significant portions of the exhibit are closed to [them]. Elephants enjoy rubbing against and playing with trees, and like to knock them over and eat them. The trees and planters in the exhibit, however, are surrounded by electrical wires that prevent the elephants from getting to them or walking near them…[I]n fact there are no areas of grass that are not ‘hot-wired’ with electrical wires…[T]he hot wiring in the elephant exhibit is all over the exhibit and is used to protect certain areas of the exhibit from the elephants, and to keep or ‘guide’ the elephants away from things like trees, plants, and grasses.

Which makes life for the elephants in the Los Angeles Zoo even worse. It is undisputed that elephants by nature are attracted to and have evolved to need and use trees, bushes, and grass…It is one thing to place electric fencing between elephants and something they are not interested in. It is another thing to place such electric hot-wiring between the elephants and something they like, need, and use as part of their natural behavior. Thus, rather than providing the elephants with trees to rub against and knock down as part of ‘an enriched environment that stimulates and elicits species-specific behavior’ (Exh. 72 at 4), the Los Angeles Zoo’s elephant management system tempts the elephants with trees that elephants naturally use to rub against and knock down, but frustrates the elephants by keeping those trees in visual and sensory range but beyond access behind electrically-charged wires.”

It is difficult to read this and not empathize with the frustration the elephants must feel, surrounded by trees they are punished for trying to touch. And sadly the inadequate conditions at the Los Angeles Zoo are fairly typical for large, well-established zoos, and far surpass conditions at the many roadside zoos across the nation – which brings all elephant captivity into serious question.

What’s Next?

In May 2017, before the California Supreme Court’s decision, David Casselman, the attorney who brought the lawsuit against Los Angeles Zoo, was a featured speaker at the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s 2017 Animal Law Symposium in Los Angeles. He gave a moving presentation about his experience litigating this case and shared some of the evidence introduced during trial, including the cruel methods used to force Billy as a young elephant to lie down on command. In a disturbing video, we see Billy in chains, one attached to a front leg and one to the opposite back leg, that are slowly pulled in opposite directions until he is forced to support himself on one front leg and one back leg. Billy tries hard to resist and stay on his feet, but this position is extremely uncomfortable and tiring. Eventually as the chains continue to be tightened, and the trainer pokes the sensitive skin behind his front leg with a bullhook, the young animal has no choice but to submit and lie on the ground, defeated. Zoo representatives tell the public that Billy lies down voluntarily.

Mr. Casselman, a founding partner at Casselman Law Group, is an inspiring example of a dedicated attorney who has worked tirelessly to advance protections of animals under the law through significant pro bono legal work. Mr. Casselman not only worked on this case at no charge for many years, but also co-founded the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, a conservation project serving many species, including Asian Elephants like those at the Los Angeles Zoo. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, he said of the decision:

“This is heartbreaking,” he said. “I thought we had done something here to move the ball forward and instead the Supreme Court has allowed the zoo to take a step into the dark ages.”

Despite the disappointing reversal of an injunction that provided only modest improvements for Billy, Tina, and Jewel, there is reason to hope for the future when it comes to elephants in captivity. More attorneys are stepping forward to help animals, including through the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s growing Pro Bono Program. In addition, the public has become more critical of the notion that captivity could ever be an adequate environment for large mammals such as elephants, who walk many miles per day and maintain strong, multi-generational familial ties and complex intra-familial relationships in a natural environment.

Efforts to help the elephants confined at the Los Angeles Zoo continue. In April 2017, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, working with local group Voice for the Animals, introduced a motion to the council to move Billy from the zoo into a sanctuary, saying: “We cannot and must not treat animals in this manner.” Billy’s condition is thought to be worse than Tina and Jewel because he lives alone, separated from the female elephants by a fence.

While zoos are being more heavily scrutinized, circuses have been the subject of intense criticism, and efforts to ban the forced performances of elephants and other wild animals have been gaining momentum. Recently, in June 2017, the New York City Council voted to prohibit the use of wild animals in circus performances, adding it to the growing list of major cities that have banned the use of wild animals in entertainment, including San Francisco in 2015 (whose strong law includes film shoots). In April of this year, the Los Angeles City Council approved a similar ban. In March 2017, members of Congress introduced H.R. 1759, the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA), which would amend the federal Animal Welfare Act to prohibit the use of exotic or wild animals in performances. In January 2017, amid declining profits and increasing negative publicity, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, after an almost 150-year run, permanently closed its doors, following a 2015 announcement it would stop using elephants in its performances by 2018.

Although zoos receive more public goodwill than circuses, as seen by the facts of the Los Angeles Zoo case discussed here, zoos can be anything but appropriate places for elephants and other wild animals. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against the San Antonio Zoo for its treatment of a 57-year-old elephant ironically named Lucky. Despite the zoo’s motion for summary judgment, a federal judge recently allowed the case to proceed. In the June 2017 decision, Judge Xavier Rodriguez rejected the zoo’s argument that its purported compliance with the Animal Welfare Act shields it from liability under the Endangered Species Act. The zoo must now defend its treatment of Lucky in a full trial, which is scheduled to start in October 2017.

While this article contains excerpts from the 2012 decision, anyone interested in this case or the issue of elephants in zoos generally is encouraged to read the entire opinion, as it is eye-opening.

Further Reading

[1] Although zoos sometimes bring another elephant or elephants into an exhibit as “companions” for a solitary elephant – often in response to public criticism about keeping these social animals in isolation – elephants do not automatically bond with other unknown elephants; the mere presence of a strange elephant is not a panacea for loneliness, and indeed can create additional stress depending on the personalities of the individual elephants. At the Los Angeles Zoo, Billy, who was captured in Malaysia and brought to the zoo in 1989, is kept separate from the two female elephants.

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Special Feature: A Young Voice in Animal Law

Posted by on September 7, 2017

The bonds that we make with individual animals can play a critical role in how we view and treat others. Whether the childhood dog you grew up with as a friend helped you understand animal emotions, or a pig in an undercover video brought factory farming to the front of your mind, these bonds inspire us, change us, and motivate us to advocate for animals. Student Animal Legal Defense Fund members are great examples of this in action. So often, students will share stories with Animal Legal Defense Fund staff of how one single animal inspired them to attend law school to practice animal law. We would like to honor these stories and these connections as the topic of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s first annual New Voices in Animal Writing Contest. Please see the link for rules and the deadline.

Thomas Ponce is a high school student, animal advocate, and an honorary SALDF member given his involvement in animal protection and interest in pursuing a career in animal law. While Thomas isn’t a law student yet, we wanted to share his special story. At an early age, Thomas Ponce understood that animals were feeling and thinking beings. This knowledge was reinforced and expanded when he connected with a shark who he desperately wanted to save from being killed for food while vacationing with his family.

The Day I Saved a Life

By Thomas Ponce, age 12

We’ve all seen Hollywood’s depiction of sharks, the media’s over-dramatization of shark attacks and felt that pit in our stomach at the sight of a shark. Movies like Jaws, Day of The Shark, Shark Night, Deep Blue Sea etc., give us the impression of a mindless killing machine out to kill all human beings. Well, I’ve seen another side of the shark and I’ve seen it up close and personal.

It all started on December 16, 2011, my birthday. My family took me to Venice Beach, which is also known as Shark Tooth Beach. This was the trip I had been waiting for. I had seen this location on the Discovery Channel over a year ago and had wanted to go ever since. Having the opportunity to find fossilized shark teeth that have been in the waters for over millions of years was something I was ecstatic about! When we arrived at our destination, I was amazed at all the sights, sounds and smells. The water was crystal clear and blue and the sand was so warm between my toes. The occasional breeze whisked my mind away to a beautiful tropical paradise. It was a perfect day to go sifting for shark teeth. I walked into the water up to my knees, sifter in hand, and began sifting. I dug my scooper into the sand, beneath the water, and pulled up many small teeth. I found great white teeth, bull shark teeth, tiger shark teeth and a few I was unsure about. It was amazing. Then it happened. I hit the jackpot! I discovered in my scoop the largest tooth I had ever seen. It was four inches long and black in color. Its edges were serrated and you could still see the gum line. The great white teeth I found paled in comparison to this massive tooth. It was a Megaladon tooth! My dream had come true, I had found one! This was the best birthday present I could have ever gotten, or so I thought.

As we were leaving the beach a friendly local had told us about a pier close by that was a perfect place to watch the sunset. I was determined to see the green flash that everyone talks about when the sun sets. We headed back to our hotel to change and then went straight to the pier. The view from the pier was miraculous. The skies were clear and the weather was perfect for being outside, not too hot and there was a cool breeze coming off the water. As we watched the sunset, the sky turned orange and pink as the sun went down. It was absolutely breathtaking! In the water we saw dolphins swimming and a man painting sea turtles at the edge of the pier. It was a night right out of a novel.

As we were leaving the pier I saw a fisherman pull a baby bonnet-head shark up on his line. He pulled him onto the pier, hooting and hollering about his catch and how he was “going to eat tonight.” The fisherman then started sharpening his very large knife, readying himself to gut the shark right then and there. The shark flapped and shook, grasping to hold onto life. It was horrible to see. I knew I had to do something, so I approached the fisherman and asked him to set the shark free. I explained how it was a living creature, a baby with a family and that it deserved to live. I explained to him the important role sharks play in our ecosystem. I pleaded with him to free him and not eat him. I even offered to buy him dinner. I told him how sharks are keystone predators and how they keep the ocean ecosystem in balance, I explained about their slow reproductive rate and how we needed every shark in the ocean to keep it healthy. I explained how the effects of removing sharks would be felt throughout the ecosystem like a domino effect. I was not letting up, I knew I had to keep fighting for that shark. After what seemed like an eternity, the fisherman finally conceded and told me that I could set him free. I couldn’t believe it, I did it! I immediately walked over, picked up the shark and placed him back into the water and told him to live free. I swear the shark looked at me with gratitude. He was alive because I spoke up for him and he knew it. I saw the understanding in his eyes and knew there was much more to sharks than what people are led to believe.

That day changed me forever and now I fight for sharks’ rights. I have always been an active animal and environmental advocate and a vegetarian and now vegan. I had run many fundraisers for farm animals and spaying and neutering your pets, leafletted about animals in captivity and in vivisection labs, and I had signed petitions against animal cruelty and protested at various sites where cruelty had been taking place, but until that day I hadn’t really concentrated my efforts on sharks. I started doing some research and I watched a documentary called Sharkwater and it gave me insight into the plight of the shark. It showed me the horrors they faced due to finning. They were being killed in huge quantities for their fins and some species were becoming dangerously close to extinction. The sharks are stripped of their fins then discarded, while still alive, back into the ocean. It was a horrible discovery and one that moved me to act and speak up for sharks. From that moment on I have dedicated myself to making as many people aware of what’s going on with sharks as I can. My hope is that through educating people on the cruel and inhumane acts being done to sharks and by explaining the importance of sharks to the ocean ecosystem, as well as our own environment that I can make a difference in helping to preserve these beautiful lives. I hope to one day soon be speaking at Congress on behalf of sharks and lobbying to bring change to the finning laws in our country.

December 16, 2011 the ocean gave me two gifts, a Megaladon tooth and an appreciation and love of sharks. In return, I gave it back one of its own and a voice that could be heard and would never be silenced.

Get Involved

Volunteer for Lobby for Animals!

Would you like to help with the federal legislation seeking to ban the use of shark fins? Contact Thomas at or visit Lobby For Animal’s Facebook page.


About Thomas:

Thomas Ponce is a 16-year-old animal rights advocate and a citizen lobbyist from Casselberry, Florida. Thomas is the founder and president of  Lobby For Animals, a 501c(3) nonprofit organization. He is also the coordinator for Fin Free FL and a grant advisor on The Pollination Project Environmental/Animal Rights Board.

Thomas believes that speaking out against injustice is not only a pivotal part of progress, it is our responsibility. Thomas created Lobby For Animals as a way to teach people about the importance of lobbying for animal rights and the environment and to offer the tools necessary for success in the political arena.  The Lobby For Animals website has training videos that give step by step instructions and tips on how to be an effective lobbyist, contacts for government representatives, templates of sample letters, mentoring and more. “As citizens we have the opportunity, and the responsibility to change the future of things. By educating ourselves, raising awareness and getting involved in the political process we are leveling the playing field and letting our representatives know we are there and willing to fight for what we believe in; protecting the rights of all animals, our civil liberties and the environment” explains Thomas.

His work has also been featured by The Thinking Vegan, Bite Size Vegan , Fins and Fluke Radio, Disrupt Lobbying, AAVS Magazine , Pelagic Love and a number of local newspapers and magazines. Thomas has received awards from The Pollination Project, his City of Casselberry City Commissioners Office, the Farm Animal Rights Movement as well as The Prudential Spirit of the Community Award and The Presidential Volunteer Service Award. Thomas’s work embodies his organization’s motto “Don’t just dream of change, lobby for it.”

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Finalize Your Emergency Plans Ahead of Irma

Posted by on September 6, 2017

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is deeply concerned about the impact of Hurricane Irma. Right on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma will make landfall this week. According to current projections, the results will be devastating. The storm poses a deadly threat to the Caribbean and will likely continue on to Florida and up the East Coast. We are thinking of the many people and animals in the storm’s path and urge everyone who could possibly be impacted by Hurricane Irma to finalize disaster plans that include cats, dogs, and any other animals that may be in your care.

No matter where you are located, these recent record-breaking storms remind all of us that disaster preparedness is of critical importance. Everyone should take this as an opportunity to make sure your entire family is ready for situations where you may need to shelter in place or evacuate. Animal guardians should also be aware of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS), passed after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, which requires states to accommodate companion and service animals in their evacuation plans if they want relief assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Contact your state government to confirm its plans for assisting animals during an emergency.

There are a variety of resources online to help you develop an emergency plan for your family. The following resources are focused on how to make sure your animal companions are part of your plan:

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