Animal cruelty cases are complex, requiring determination, creativity, and persistence. Each year for National Justice for Animal Week, Top Defenders are selected for addressing animal cruelty in their communities, despite the challenges they encountered in doing so. The accomplishments of these individuals collectively represent justice for animal victims of cruelty and an increased protection of this vulnerable population in the future. These professionals have gone above and beyond for animals this year.
2021 Top Defenders
Detective Vanessa Acosta and Dr. Carolina De La Garza, both of El Paso, Tex.
Detective Vanessa Acosta was instrumental in the formation of the El Paso Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Investigations Unit. She is also the founder of a nonprofit, Laws N’ Paws, dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of abused and abandoned animals in El Paso. Since 2017, Laws N’ Paws has rescued more than 200 animals, including a 9-year-old pit bull who was shot by his former guardian and additionally suffered two fractures to his front leg.
Working with Laws N’ Paws, Dr. Carolina De La Garza, a veterinarian at East El Paso Animal Hospital, oversaw his treatment. Fortunately, Dr. De La Garza was able to save his leg, and he has since made a full recovery. In her report detailing his injuries, Dr. De La Garza noted that “although animals are considered ‘property’ in the state of Texas … animals are sentient beings who can experience pain and suffering.” Thanks to Detective Acosta’s and Dr. De La Garza’s hard work and dedication, this affectionate dog was adopted into a loving home.
Haley Anderson, former executive director of Iowa Pet Alliance, and Colin Grace, director of legal and strategic initiatives at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa
Prior to 2020, Iowa was ranked second-to-last among U.S. states in terms of its animal protection laws. Haley Anderson, former executive director of Iowa Pet Alliance, and Colin Grace, director of legal and strategic initiatives at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, were instrumental in pushing for legislative change, crafting a bill—and ensuring its success—to overhaul Iowa’s badly outdated animal protection laws. The Community and Pet Protection Act dramatically improved and expanded protections for animals in Iowa, helping the state rise by 11 ranks on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s U.S. Animal Protection Laws Rankings Report for 2020 and making it among the most-improved jurisdictions in the country.
Robert Samuel Willett, deputy district attorney, Alamosa, Colo.
A former police officer, Robert Samuel Willett was inspired to make a career change in 2009, earning his law degree with the goal of making a meaningful impact for the powerless and marginalized. A lifelong animal lover and guardian to two previously abandoned rescue dogs, Willett takes seriously the concept known as The Link—the tendency of those who abuse animals to go on to harm humans as well. As deputy district attorney, he’s seen The Link borne out in cases he’s dealt with, from domestic violence to child abuse to homicide. “So when I see an animal being abused,” he says, “aside from my feelings of seeking justice for my fellow creature, I also look at any enforcement or prosecutorial action I can take as preventative action to help change the behavior of the offender and help avoid any potential future human or animal victims.”
Senators C.B. Embry, Jr., Morgantown, Ky., and Morgan McGarvey, Louisville, Ky., members of the Kentucky State Senate
For years, Kentucky was the only state in the nation that prohibited veterinarians from reporting suspected animal cruelty. This seriously hindered the state’s ability to hold animal abusers accountable and made it difficult for veterinarians to discharge their ethical duties. State Senators C.B. Embry, Jr., and Morgan McGarvey spearheaded a bill empowering veterinarians to report suspected abuse. It passed with bipartisan support in 2020 and is now protecting countless animals throughout Kentucky.
Tiffany J. Preston, Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis, Ind.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tiffany J. Preston is using her considerable legal expertise to secure justice under the federal Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act of 2019, in an egregious animal torture case that is inaugurating a new era of federal animal cruelty response. In her role, AUSA Preston also prosecutes white-collar fraud, public corruption, human trafficking, and child exploitation cases, and holds key positions on working groups dedicated to combating issues such as kidnapping and public corruption. She was previously Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and is also an accomplished legal educator who has taught at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the Chicago Bar Association College of Trial Advocacy, among others.
2020 Top Defenders
Representative Bruce Irwin Griffey, member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Nashville, TN, and Rebecca Davis Griffey, Assistant District Attorney General for Tennessee’s 24 Judicial District, Huntingdon, TN
When a nonprofit animal rescue organization’s ability to provide care to nearly 200 animals seized in a neglect case — including Chuck the duck — was threatened by an unconventional legal challenge, Tennessee Representative Bruce Irwin Griffey and Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Davis Griffey stood up for the animals, winning a key victory in Tennessee court. The animals’ legal owners challenged a “bond-or-forfeit” law that required them either to relinquish the animals to the state, or post a bond to cover for the cost of caring for the animals while legal proceedings were underway. Drawing on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s position statement in favor of bond-or-forfeit statutes to craft an argument that prevailed in court, the Griffeys won a ruling reaffirming that this critical legal tool remains available to animals.
Judge Alison R. Ferrante, Gilbert, AZ
While serving as a prosecutor in Arizona, Alison Ferrante’s work long involved confronting cruelty to animals. Alison created a Phoenix-Tucson animal cruelty taskforce and served on the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Animal Cruelty Task Force, where she revamped the way Mesa City investigates animal cruelty. Alison has proactively undertaken efforts to improve local animal protection laws. In Arizona and beyond, Alison has also played a key role in educating animal control agents, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors about best practices for addressing animal cruelty through the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Alison currently serves as a Municipal Judge in Gilbert, Arizona.
Tim Woodward, Executive Director of Animal Rescue Corps, Stanley, VA
As executive director of Animal Rescue Corps, Tim Woodward focuses on large-scale rescue as a means of making the world a better place for animals — including Chuck the duck, and the nearly 200 other mistreated animals he was rescued with. Tim has made a critical difference in the lives of animals ranging from dog fighting victims, neglected farmed animals, and those threatened by natural disasters. By raising public awareness, improving animal resource infrastructure, and proactively engaging with local agencies, Tim and Animal Rescue Corps help prevent future suffering. In the face of escalating costs to care for Chuck and the other animals, Tim also worked with fellow Animal Defender honorees Rebecca Davis Griffey and Bruce Irwin Griffey to defend Tennessee’s bond-and-forfeit law, which will help future animal cruelty victims in the state.
James W. Glasgow, Will County State’s Attorney, Will County State’s Attorney’s Office, Joliet, IL
James Glasgow has tirelessly advocated for animals’ rights during his six terms as Will County State’s Attorney. In 1999, he authored a statute that legally defined the torture of animals and made the abuse of an animal a felony for the first time in Illinois’ history; the same legislation also mandated that defendants convicted of animal torture undergo a psychiatric evaluation. In 2019, James founded the League of Extraordinary Canines & Friends — a coalition of local and national groups and individuals who work in animal law or are involved in addressing animal abuse and neglect — and hosted a two-day training session to educate investigators and animal control professionals on how to identify and prevent animal abuse.
Senator Julie Raque Adams, member of the Kentucky Senate, Frankfort, KY
Senator Julie Raque Adams has served in the Kentucky state legislature for 10 years, first as a representative and now as a senator. In 2019, Adams sponsored Senate Bill 67, An Act Relating to Sexual Crimes against Animals. Prior to this bill’s passage, Kentucky was one of five states that did not criminalize the sexual abuse of animals. Senate Bill 67 also created several crucial sentencing provisions, including mandatory psychological evaluations of convicted offenders, and mandatory bans preventing offenders from owning or possessing animals for at least five years. This law is the first time psychological evaluations and possession bans have been incorporated into any of Kentucky’s animal protection laws, and Senator Adams’ bill signaled a monumental step forward in the way Kentucky addresses animal cruelty.
Judge Gale E. Rasin, Baltimore Circuit Court Senior Judge, Chestertown, MD
Judge Gale E. Rasin served on Baltimore City’s trial courts for more than 20 years, and currently presides over the Mental Health Court in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City as senior judge. Judge Rasin has been active with organizations devoted to combating animal abuse and neglect. She served on the Baltimore City Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, created judicial training programs on animal cruelty, and has lectured at the annual animal cruelty conference of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. In 2019, she was a fellow at the Harvard Law School Animal Law and Policy Program where she wrote a guide for trial judges on the subject of animal hoarding.
Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, former member of the New Jersey General Assembly and state Senate, Elizabeth, NJ
Former New Jersey state Senator Raymond Lesniak served as a New Jersey legislator for 40 years, in the General Assembly and state Senate. Senator Lesniak’s record is second to none in sponsoring and passing animal legislation, including the country’s first law banning the trade of ivory products. Senator Lesniak has continued his animal advocacy since leaving office, working to enact Nosey’s Law — prohibiting the use of elephants and other wild animals in traveling circuses. He has long worked to stop to bear hunts in New Jersey and is advocating for New Jersey to enact a Courtroom Animal Advocate Program (CAAP) law, to give legal voice to animal cruelty victims. Senator Lesniak founded the Lesniak Institute at Kean University, which teaches action-driven advocacy.
Stacie Aileen Haynes, executive director of the Susquehanna SPCA, Cooperstown, NY
Stacie Haynes serves as the executive director of the Susquehanna Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SQSPCA). In February 2019, Stacie worked with her local district attorney and county sheriff to form the Otsego County Animal Cruelty Task Force. The SQSPCA is often on the front lines of enforcing animal protection laws, but such enforcement requires the collaboration of all relevant agencies and organizations. Haynes’ task force has already tackled several large-scale cruelty cases, including one case resulting in the seizure of over 100 farmed animals. The task force is also focused on education and will provide training for social service agencies on how to identify and report animal cruelty.
Casey Mundell, Deputy County Attorney with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, Phoenix, AZ
Currently assigned to the Special Crimes Bureau in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s Organized Crime Division, Casey Mundell handles all the office’s animal cruelty cases. Casey helped pass legislation resulting in more serious penalties for animal cruelty offenses and also helped to develop the Animal Cruelty Diversion Program — one of three such programs in the country that allow those accused of cruelty to participate in counseling in lieu of going through the court system. Casey is a member of the Arizona Professionals’ Cruelty Task Force, founding member of the Maricopa County Animal Cruelty Law Enforcement Task Force, and presiding chair of the Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Arizona.
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