Legal Freedom Fighter Series: Joyce Tischler and the Animal Legal Defense Fund
We’ve seen it repeatedly throughout our history: When people’s rights are threatened, it’s the lawyers who step up to the plate. They fight hate, they defend our Constitution, and they give a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves. More than ever before, we need lawyers to help ensure that everyone’s rights are protected. Thousands of lawyers across the country are doing this. However, some are true Freedom Fighters and they deserve special recognition. That’s why each month, we will feature a lawyer who is really making a difference.
Today, we are proud to feature Joyce Tischler.
Joyce Tischler, known as “the Mother of Animal Law,” is the co-founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and was ALDF’s executive director for twenty-five years. Currently, as ALDF general counsel, Joyce is responsible for in-house legal matters, as well as writing, lecturing on, and promoting the field of animal law. She has been called a visionary, a leader, an inspiration, and a role model. She’s also an exceptional attorney.
Joyce has devoted her career to the development and advancement of animal law. When she began, there was no field of animal law: no animal law courses, no animal law programs, and no animal law nonprofits. Joyce decided to change that.
Here’s the interview:
What inspired you to become a lawyer in the first place?
The year 1968 is a memorable one in American history. The U.S. was deeply divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights. I was 15 years old and spent that summer working in the Queens at the headquarters of the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign. That was my first experience as a political activist, standing on street corners handing out leaflets and arguing about the war with middle-aged men. I loved it. At the campaign headquarters and rallies, I met lawyers who were socially progressive, and I wanted to be like them. That summer had a profound impact on me; and soon after, I decided to pursue a career in law as a way to create positive social change in our society.
Why did you decide to focus your career on animal rights and specifically start the Animal Legal Defense Fund?
There are two threads that led me to co-found the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in 1979. The first thread is social activism: I became actively involved in multiple movements, including civil rights, peace, feminism, prisoner’s rights, and the rights of farm workers.
The second and equally strong thread was my lifelong desire to protect animals. Growing up, I was that odd little kid who brought home injured birds and “homeless” cats. In college, I helped run a quasi-legal cat shelter on campus: we obtained veterinary care for and placed hundreds of cats. In 1975, with the publication of Animal Liberation, philosopher Peter Singer helped me and many others graduate from being an animal “lover,” to a committed animal rights activist. His first chapter, “All Animals Are Equal,” explains why animals should be taken out of the legal category of “thing” and recognized as legal persons.
In law school, I wrote a law review article on legal rights for animals. However, when I graduated from law school in 1977, there was nothing called animal law because we had not yet invented it. This was a very depressing time for me. What I really wanted to do was litigation to protect animals, but how? I was living in San Francisco and working for a law firm to pay the bills, but my heart wasn’t into the work.
In 1978, Virginia Handley, a friend and activist who ran the local Fund for Animals Office, introduced me to Larry Kessenick, a partner in a large San Francisco firm. Larry and I began holding meetings for attorneys who were interested in animal rights. We started as a small discussion group, teaching ourselves about the federal and California laws relevant to animals and about issues such as factory farming. Over the next few years, we met lawyers in other parts of the U.S. who shared our interest. We believed that, because of our special skill set, lawyers could play an important role in the growing movement to protect animals and establish their legal rights. Although we didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, this was the start of the field of animal law. In 1981, I left the law firm and became the first full-time employee of ALDF.
You have been called the “Mother of Animal Law.” How has animal law changed since you started your career decades ago? And how do you see it evolving in the years to come?
When we started animal law, all we had was a blank page. We’ve been filling in the blanks ever since. With the exception of state anti-cruelty laws, a quick survey of federal and state laws relating to animals shows that most are intended to justify exploiting animals. Also, although some pay lip service to providing humane treatment, they are poorly enforced. We began by using environmental laws—for example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—in ways that environmentalists had not intended. In my first major case, I used NEPA to protect 5,000 feral burros in the Mohave Desert (China Lake, California).
In close to forty years, we’ve built a solid foundation of case law that offers better protections to animals and in which courts are starting to consider that animals have interests. Family law practitioners now see cases in which a divorcing couple is fighting over who gets custody of the family dog or cat. In those cases, Animal Legal Defense Fund can submit an amicus brief asking the judge to consider what is in the best interest of the animal, rather than applying a straight property analysis.
Outside the courtroom, we have introduced animal law courses into most ABA accredited law schools in the U.S. and have student chapters of Animal Legal Defense Fund in an even larger number of law schools. There is now a thriving section of legal literature devoted to animal law, including casebooks, law review journals, and a Nutshell. Legal scholars in the U.S. have recognized, written and spoken about animal law, including Professors Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Epstein, Cass Sunstein, and Judge Richard Posner.
The Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, in collaboration with Animal Legal Defense Fund, offers the most robust animal law education in the world, including a variety of animal law-related courses, a clinic, summer program, law review, and LL.M. program. Today, the largest animal protection groups have litigation departments, which didn’t exist when we started this work in 1979. And, in addition to our staff attorneys, Animal Legal Defense Fund is assisted by a network of over 1,700 pro bono attorneys. Finally, animal law is spreading in other countries and continents. It has taken shape in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and it will continue to grow and become more mainstream, similar to the path of environmental law.
What challenges do you face today that you never encountered before?
The industries we challenge are finding new and deceptive ways to fight against change. Traditionally, the meat industry has had enormous influence with the media and legislatures. However, undercover investigations have shown that in many factory farms, animals live in a persistent state of suffering. Rather than improve the conditions the animals are kept in, the industry has introduced “Ag-Gag” laws, making it illegal for people to take photographs or video inside factory farms. The Animal Legal Defense Fund is challenging these laws, state-by-state. Present day animal exploiters sued by ALDF are more likely to respond with SLAPPsuits, (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), in an effort to intimidate us. We fight against both of those industry tactics aggressively.
You’ve had so many successes. Which ones stands out the most for you?
Recently, ALDF successfully brought a lawsuit (now, on appeal) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to challenge a roadside zoo’s poor treatment of endangered captive wildlife in its possession. Until now, the ESA was only applied to endangered species in the wild. Now, we are asking judges to consider whether cruelty in captivity constitutes a “taking” under the ESA. I admire the creativity of our staff attorneys in developing that approach.
Sometimes, the failures stand out. Over a fifteen year period, ALDF sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, trying to force that agency to do its job and provide basic protections to animals in research laboratories. We banged our heads against the wall, winning on the merits in the D.C. District Court, only to have it overturned by the Court of Appeals. For a long time, I felt bitter that we could not breathe life into the substantive provisions of the Animal Welfare Act and obtain even minimal protections for animals used in research. I now realize that our lawsuits were part of a slow, yet increasingly visible change in the way that research will be done in the near future. In the toxicology field, where some of the most painful experiments are performed, there is a growing movement among scientists to replace animals with alternatives such as cell cultures, tissue cultures and computer models, that are faster, less expensive and better predictors of the impact on humans. It’s a very exciting development and a good reminder that change is neither linear nor quick.
What was your most memorable case?
Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Woodley, 640 S.E. 2d 777 (N.C. Ct. App. 2007). In 2004, I learned of a law in North Carolina that allows groups such as mine to civilly enjoin cruelty. Generally, prosecution of cruelty cases is confined to the state. However, N.C. Gen. Stats. §19A provides for “a civil remedy for the protection and humane treatment of animals in addition to any criminal remedies that are available.” Standing is very broad. The plaintiff can include any person, even though that person doesn’t have a possessory or ownership right in an animals.
We then learned of Barbara and Robert Woodley, an elderly North Carolina couple who kept hundreds of dogs in horrific conditions. Animal Legal Defense Fund sued them, gained a preliminary injunction, and after a three week trial, a permanent injunction.
The court granted custody of 330 dogs to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, with no funds to care for them. That’s when things got even more interesting: We opened a dog shelter in an old vacant building, and the community of animal lovers, rescuers, veterinarians and business people came together to care for these dogs, bring them back to health and socialize them. We were able to place all of the dogs into good homes, as well as set good legal precedent. We’ve gone back to North Carolina and used §19A to rescue other dogs, horses, even a bear in a roadside zoo.
What piece of advice would you give to other lawyers across the country who want to help animals?
There are several ways to use your legal skills to help animals. Animal law is still a young field and few attorneys are able to support themselves in a private animal law practice. Consider working for one of the many national, state, or local animal protection agencies that utilize lawyers. You can locate them in the World Animal Net. If you work for a medium to large-sized firm, ask to be allowed to commit your pro bono hours to animal law cases and then contact our pro bono coordinator, Tom Linney at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you work as a criminal prosecutor, ask to be assigned to handle the animal cruelty cases.
For more resources on a job or career in animal law, check the following: “Opportunities In Animal Law,” as well as the following articles:
If an attorney wants to get involved in social justice, how can they get started?
If you were unable to take Animal Law when you were in law school, you can still educate yourself about the problems faced by animals, and the laws, both federal and state that apply to them. Check online to find a wide array of books, news articles, law review articles and videos on animal abuse and animal law. Visit the websites of the national, as well as your local animal rights/protection groups for hands-on information. Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Animal Law Studies host an annual animal law conference, held in mid-October. This is a great place to learn about the relevant legal issues and network with other lawyers and law students. Decide what issue or issues resonate most with you, and find an animal protection/rights group to work with on that issue. You won’t regret it!