animal rights attorney

I’m an animal rights attorney who freed a bear from an ice cream shop. AMA.

I was the lead attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in a public nuisance lawsuit against a Pennsylvania ice cream shop to free “Ricky the bear” from small and barren enclosure. The lawsuit generated widespread media coverage, and recently resulted in a settlement where Ricky was sent from her Pennsylvania exhibit to a Colorado sanctuary where she is being rehabilitated for introduction into an expansive fifteen acre home with other bears.

Proof of identity here. Video about her rescue is here.

Edit: Thanks for a great conversation! I have to go at 4:00 PM (PT), but keep the questions coming.

Edit 2: Gotta run! Thanks so much for all of the insightful questions. I’ll check back a few times this evening to answer more. Don’t miss the video of Ricky’s rescue.

Edit 3: The ALDF online team is insisting I peddle our website, Facebook, and Twitter on here too.

Edit 4: Thanks for the great conversation, everyone. Goodnight!

Why did it take a lawsuit for the owners to agree to move Ricky? Were they not willing to negotiate beforehand and/or did they really think his cage was a suitable habitat for a bear?

We did try to resolve the issue privately before filing suit, but sometimes it takes litigation to really make change, which speaks to the importance of groups like the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The owner finally did the right thing and agreed to send Ricky to a sanctuary. For that, we commend him.

I followed Ricky’s story on “The Dodo!” Good for you. Her life was just awful. I cannot fathom keeping any animal in such dreadful conditions. Were you there when she was released into the sanctuary? (Did you cry a little bit?)

Thanks for following her plight! I was there in Pennsylvania with our clients and the wonderful transport team from the Wild Animal Sanctuary when they loaded her up and hit the road. I was also able to see Ricky the next day at the sanctuary, sleeping on straw in her new den. It was a wonderful transformation.

I know people have tried to help Ricky in the past. What in the past have they sued Jim Mack’s for and what prevented them from being successful in the past vs. now?

This case was the first lawsuit, although there had been complaints in the past to the state wildlife commission, which refused to take any action. The reason this case finally accomplished what years of complaining couldn’t, is that it finally forced the owner to respond. It also generated a huge public outcry, which really put the spotlight on him to do the right thing.

As I was reading though the discussions about Ricky on Facebook on the many local articles, I noticed a trend. It seemed as though many of the locals were unhappy about the lawsuit for one reason or another (memories of visiting Jim Mack’s, local celebrity status, indifference or ignorance, claims that it was an unimportant issue, etc.,) and I am wondering what you would say to the people who were against Ricky’s release to the sanctuary?

The vast majority of people in York and the surrounding areas supported our case and were very thrilled when we won. Our four plaintiffs were locals who had been outspoken about Ricky’s captivity. The local news stories had thousands of “likes” compared to a handful of comments from a very vocal minority of detractors, most of whom misunderstood the case and the relief that we were seeking.

How’d the idiots who owned the shop get a bear anyways?

According to her owner, Ricky was given to the ice cream shop by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Before Ricky, the ice cream shop owned other bears and even a lion, due to the lax regulations on private possession of captive wildlife.

I’ve been familiar with that bear since I was a little kid. I was wondering – any follow-up news from the sanctuary? How is she adjusting? Does she miss the donuts?

She’s doing great. Here’s the report from the sanctuary: “Ricky is acting very comfortable already, and has already started to play inside her den and is enjoying rearranging her straw & grass bedding. She has been nose-to-nose with a number of female Bears that came to greet her (through the fence)… and is eating lots of fruits, vegetables, meats and sweet treats.”

Are the owners required to release their other animals as well or will they remain on the property?

Our lawsuit was limited to Ricky, who was the last remaining captive wild animal there. There are still one or two birds and rabbits left, but they weren’t subjected to the same kind of neglect. If we receive reports that they’re being treated cruelly, we’ll of course look at how to save them too.

What was Ricky’s favorite flavor?

Sadly, Ricky’s diet consisted of dog food, dried corn, donuts, and coke. At her new sanctuary home, she’ll get a wide variety of fruits, veggies, roots, and other nutritious food, but no ice cream…

How did your legal career (or personal life) steer you towards becoming an animal rights attorney? Do you feel like this area of law is becoming more widespread/accepted?

I’ve been an animal rights advocate since high school and studied philosophy in college with a concentration on animal ethics. I went to law school with the goal of practicing animal rights law and have been litigating cases for ALDF for more than 7 years now. Animal law is growing exponentially in ways I couldn’t have expected just a few short years ago.

What is your advice to someone who has been thinking about entering the world of animal rights litigation?

If you’re already in the legal field, we have some great resources here.

What are some other cases ALDF is currently pursuing?

We do a wide variety of cases, everything from factory farming cases to companion animal cases to captive wildlife cases to animal experimentation cases. Other captive wildlife cases I’m working on involve a tiger at a truck stop in Louisiana and a roadside zoo in North Carolina.

Are you vegetarian/vegan?

Yes, happy, healthy vegan for 15 years. First rule of legal ethics: don’t eat your clients.

In your experience, what are the best ways for an average citizen to affect change in animal welfare law? Signing petitions and writing to politicians feels like I’m doing something, but I don’t know how helpful those actions actually are. How do we give animals a stronger voice?

Petitions that are well-written, strategic, and properly timed can make a difference. In Ricky’s case, more than 200,000 people signed petitions to urge the owner to send Ricky to a sanctuary and that kind of public scrutiny cannot be ignored. Public engagement is essential, as are individual acts that refuse complicity with animal exploitation, such as refusing to support businesses that harm animals.

How do you maintain your mental equilibrium having to deal with animal cruelty cases on a consistent basis?

It certainly helps to have some wins like this one to recharge the batteries!

What can I legally do to help a dog across the alley because his owner leaves him out on freezing, dangerous temperatures at night?

ALDF’s LiveSafe app lets you report animal cruelty with your smartphone.

When we report using the app, who receives our report?

“If you live in a jurisdiction that is already connected with LiveSafe—many jurisdictions across the nation already are—then the tip goes direct to your local law enforcement. If your local authorities are not yet connected with the app, then the tip goes to a call center staffed with individuals who will quickly locate the appropriate local authorities and forward the tips to the correct contact for your jurisdiction. Because the app was built by the same developers who created an already-established national app for general crime reporting, there is already a well-established infrastructure in place that makes sure tips about animal abuse submitted through LiveSafe will quickly and seamlessly get to your local authorities.”

Who foots the bill for this app/organization?

The app is free. The Animal Legal Defense Fund is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by private donations from individuals who support our work. Those who would like to support us can do so here.

What are the next steps/plans to free Tony (truck stop tiger in LA)? Do you think it’s just a matter of time until he’s free – like yes, the legal process takes forever, but is it moving in a good direction that leads to his freedom?

Tony’s case has been long and frustrating. We won the lawsuit, but his owner filed a case of his own to challenge Louisiana’s big cat regulations, and then he managed to convince the Louisiana legislature to retroactively exempt him from the law we used in our case. But we haven’t given up and we’re fighting both the owner’s lawsuit and the new exemption in court. Things have moved painfully slowly, but if the court agrees with us that the Louisiana big cat ban is constitutional and that Louisiana can’t simply exempt one person from its laws, then Tony will finally be free. How long that will take is out of our hands, unfortunately.

What is your opinion on PETA?

I don’t agree with everything they do, but they do some good work. We worked together to rescue another bear, Ben.

Thank you so much for dedicating your time to giving animals a voice. What’s the hardest aspect of your job? Most rewarding?

The hardest part of the job is the inevitable frustration of trying to help animals through a legal system that is mostly indifferent to their plight. The most rewarding aspect is the flipside of that: when we finally get traction and transform the life of an animal, as we did in Ricky’s case.

How do you find the cases you take on? There seems to be so many, how do you choose? Have you heard about poor Lucy, the lonely elephant in frigid Edmonton?

Some cases are brought to us by concerned members of the public, as Ricky’s case was; others we find ourselves. Obviously we have to be selective about which cases are most likely to succeed. We are familiar with poor Lucy’s plight. There was a lawsuit a few years ago, that unfortunately did not succeed in getting her out.

My question is specific to the recent debacle surrounding seaworld. What do you believe would be the best option for the whales in captivity? Is releasing them into the wild even feasible?

Check out this article about sea pens, which are probably the best solution to a difficult problem created by SeaWorld and others who think they have a right to confine wild animals in small tanks.

Did Jim Mack inspect the sanctuary and did that change his mind? He seemed to be worried whether Ricky would be taken care of there which is kind of weird since they were giving her Coke and maple donuts

No, but once we explained how the sanctuary operates, he realized it was far superior to her cage at the ice cream shop.

I’m an animal rights activist in Oklahoma, and my husband is an attorney. We have donated to ALDF, AND WE BELIEVE IN YOUR WORK. THANK YOU for saving Ricky!!!  How is the movement against AG-GAG laws going? I live only a few miles away from a factory pig farm, and am sickened by the cloak of secrecy that shrouds that horrible place.

I grew up in Texas, so I have a sense of what it’s like to be a vegan in Oklahoma. Keep up the great work. The fight against ag gag laws, which criminalize undercover investigations at factory farms, is going very well. We’ve legislatively defeated almost all of the bills that have been introduced over the last few years, and our litigation to challenge their constitutionality is proceeding well.

I know this is kind of a tough question, but as an animal rights attorney, what rights do you believe animals have? All of the same ones as humans? The right to never be consumed for food? To never be kept as pets? Humans can eat animals but only if they are kept and raised humanely?

It is a tough question, and lots has been written on it. Practically speaking, society has at least reached a consensus that animals have a right to not to be treated cruelly and they have a right not to have their interests disregarded for trivial human benefits. How those get sorted out in practice raises a whole other set of questions. Do animals deserve the same rights as humans? No, they don’t have much use for a right to vote or a right to drive a car. So of course, which rights animals have will depend on the contexts in which they exist. But animals do deserve to have their well-being considered and to have their interests matter in the legal system.

Why was it a nuisance case rather than a cruelty case?

Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty statute exempts wild animals regulated by the wildlife commission, so Ricky’s protections stemmed from state wildlife regulations. Those regulations are supposed to be enforced by the wildlife commission, but since it refused to rescue Ricky, we used a public nuisance cause of action, a well-established avenue through which citizens can enforce laws that protect the public safety and morality.

Where did you go to law school? What did you end up doing your 1L summer? Did you have an idea what you wanted to do?

I went to Stanford Law School; my summer internships were with Tri-Valley CAREs and the ACLU of Northern California. I knew I wanted to practice animal protection law, but there weren’t many summer positions in animal law a decade ago and my commitment to public interest law goes beyond nonhuman animals.

Is there an independent regulatory group that rates livestock farmers? If so, are there any that have a good metric aligned with a concerned citizen and are their results easily found? Lastly is it easy to trace livestock farmers to their customers (Safeway, Burger King, etc…)?

Thanks for the question and the concern. It’s my philosophy that death is a negative (albeit, ultimately inevitable) event, so the quality of an animal’s life is no justification for causing her death. But even if you believe that killing animals for food is justified under the terms you describe, there are no animals who are killed for food that live a relatively long and normal life. This chart, which shows the ages at which animals are slaughtered, is pretty shocking: the bottom line is that the animals who are killed for meat are just kids.

What’s your stance on animal experimenting, in general? I’m from a scientific field and well, unfortunately there’s still lots of animal testing going on. It’s a necessity in fundamental scientific research, and of course, it is absolutely needed in the pharma industry. The future aim is to reduce this as much as possible, at least that’s what they told us at uni. I’m not sure if the industry thinks the same.

We probably disagree on the extent to which animal research is still necessary and on the ultimate ethical issue of whether we can justify harming others to benefit ourselves, but I suspect we also have a lot of common ground. Even if we accept that some research is justified, much, if not most, of what is currently conducted is unnecessary because it is either poorly conducted, duplicative of existing experiments, unable to be extrapolated from nonhumans to humans, or simply trivial and unrelated to real human well-being. The way the legal system treats research in the US is pretty pathetic, but that’s a whole other issue. ALDF has some good resources on animal testing and the law here.

I don’t think it’s at all hypocritical for vegans to take medicine, including those tested on animals. I basically agree with this position.

I love hearing your stories of success, and I’m SO happy you are doing the work you are doing. But at the end of the day, you are attacking the result of the problem, not the root cause. What sort of social or political pressures do you think we need to end this senseless abuse and exploitation of animals once and for all?

There’s no simple answer, but social and political pressure work in tandem with litigation. Through cases like Ricky’s, we can draw public attention to the broader ethical issues with captive wildlife and the legal gaps in their regulation. There’s a dynamic relationship between law and social change; litigation alone won’t solve the problem, but I think it’s part of a pluralistic approach to animal rights.

How do you reconcile your beliefs as an animal rights activist / attorney with the owner’s property rights (the bear after all is his property)?

The legal system does consider animals to be property, wrongly in my view, but animals still receive protections that no other form of property receives. It’s perfectly legal to violently destroy your own car or your computer if you want to, but it’s illegal to do the same to your dog or cat. Legally speaking, people have property rights in animals, but those rights are limited, because unlike other forms of property, animals are sentient.

Is there a Mrs. Bear Free’er?

There is a Ms. Bear Free’er, who is a public interest attorney herself, working to make sure low-income people get the legal assistance they need.