the Right Side of the Law
The Satya Interview with
Amy Trakinski and Len Egert
Egert and Amy Trakinski work primarily on animal law in New York and New Jersey.
Specializing in state and federal litigation, Egert and Trakinski have
represented national animal advocacy organizations such as Farm Sanctuary,
PETA, the Fund for Animals, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, as well
as local humane societies, grassroots organizations and individual clients.
Prior to starting her own practice, Amy Trakinski was a law clerk to
the Honorable Jose L. Fuentes, Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey.
She was also a civil
litigator focusing in the areas of constitutional and employment law. Len Egert
was a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society. He also practiced labor law
and litigation and served as Assistant Counsel to the Writer’s Guild of
America, East. Both are currently members of the Association of the Bar of the
City of New York’s Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals, and
serve on the boards of directors of various animal advocacy groups.
Both ethical vegans, Amy and Len’s family includes two rescued dogs, Snowman
and Babe, and felines Izzy and Mo. In between court battles, Amy Trakinski and
Len Egert took a few moments to answer some questions about their work.
How did you become involved in animal rights law?
Amy Trakinski: I actually went to law school back in 1988 to do “animal
rights” even though I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. I’d
been inspired by PETA, which was a relatively young organization at the time,
to become active for animals. When I got to law school, though, I was disappointed
to find that not one animal rights class existed. I enrolled in environmental
law and even the one section on the syllabus dealing with animals, the Animal
Welfare Act, was dropped due to time constraints. It wasn’t until a few
years out of law school that I became vegan. Len soon followed and we decided
the time was right for us to open our own practice. We were lucky because Farm
Sanctuary became one of our first clients. We also hit the ground running doing
activist defense work. Before long, the majority of our work was animal-related.
Len Egert: Through Amy I began to learn more about how animals are treated on
factory farms. I worked for the Legal Aid Society as a public defender out of
law school and later for unions as a labor attorney. After we started our own
practice and doing pro bono animal cases I saw there was a real need for this
kind of work.
Can you tell us about some of your cases?
AT: Our caseload is pretty varied. For example, we’ve privately prosecuted
an egg factory for cruelty to its hens, sued a town for issuing a permit to a
circus which we alleged cruelly treated its elephants, sued the State of New
Jersey to stop a bear hunt, and sued the New York Department of Correction for
failing to provide vegan food to prisoners. We’ve also been taking on a
lot of dangerous dog cases, and working with SPCAs to assist in the prosecution
of cruelty cases, especially those involving farmed animals. We continue to do
activist defense work which we feel is vital, especially with laws such as the
Patriot Act and other supposedly anti-terror pieces of legislation threatening
free speech rights.
Is there a specific focus of your work—farm animals, vivisection,
LE: Our work has involved animals in agriculture, entertainment, wildlife and
companion animals. Generally, our cases involve seeking to enforce existing laws
or challenging government action that’s detrimental to animals.
AT: We try and focus as much of our time as possible on farmed animal issues.
Animals raised for food in this country, especially those in industrial or factory
farms—over nine billion a year—are forced to endure the most unimaginable
kind of suffering.
In the U.S. today, what are some of the most common animal-related legal cases?
LE: The most common cases you see involve companion animal issues such as pet-based
evictions and veterinary malpractice. We’re also seeing an increase in
custody disputes. Also common are wildlife cases because of the protections provided
by laws such as the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.
AT: And of course, there are animal cruelty cases. Unfortunately, the laws are
often under-enforced and many states explicitly exempt from prosecution cruelty
to farm animals or “common farming practices.” Even in jurisdictions
which don’t have such exemptions, cruelty against farmed animals—especially
those on factory farms—are rarely prosecuted. We try to encourage authorities
to take on these cases or, when the law allows, prosecute them ourselves.
Do any schools offer an animal law degree?
AT: Gary Francione’s course at Rutgers law school was one of if not the
first. The Vermont Law School has a course in Animal Rights Law taught by Steven
Wise. These days, around 40 laws schools offer some kind of animal law class,
including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Berkeley and even our alma mater, Cardozo Law
School. Also, last November, the Animal Legal Defense Fund hosted a conference
at Yale entitled the Future of Animal Law, and last month, we participated as
judges in the Portland-based National Center for Animal Law’s second annual
animal law moot court competition held at Harvard. Also, there are around 50
or so Student Animal Legal Defense Fund Chapters at law schools all across the
country. It is just starting to be taken seriously as a legitimate discipline.
LE: It’s quite a change from when we were in school. Recently, Bob Barker
has even funded a major grant program aimed at law schools willing to institute
classes and other programs in animal law.
What advice do you have for people interested in pursuing a career in animal
AT: As far as law school goes, it’s important to take as broad a course
of study as possible. Since animals are still considered property under our legal
system, there really is no “animal rights law” per se but there is
the possibility of using existing law to fight the most egregious forms of exploitation.
A good advocate will by necessity reach for a wide range of laws in an effort
to build a case. Some of the areas our practice touches on are administrative,
constitutional, criminal and municipal law. Also, corporations, consumer protection
and torts. Creativity is important. You end up being a real renaissance lawyer.
It also helps to be a self-starter. We hope more and more lawyers will be willing
to open firms devoted to animal work or incorporate animal cases into their existing
practices. There are also a growing number of positions for attorneys within
animal organizations. For example, HSUS has recently created a new litigation
department and PETA has a legal department composed of litigators and animal
law specialists. Others have in-house counsel offices which deal with organizational
LE: Also, many local and state bar associations are forming animal law committees.
They’re a good place to make contacts and learn about current issues.
Is there any advice you have for activists regarding legal counsel for their
LE: Get organized early and try to anticipate what your legal needs will be.
Try and touch base with a lawyer at the beginning of the process to discuss issues.
It’s often helpful to discuss strategy and determine if there is any basis
for a legal challenge to particular conduct that is the focus of the campaign.
For aspiring animal rights lawyers, where do you feel the greatest need is?
LE: There is and will continue to be a need for lawyers who can assist in legislation
and litigation. We need to enact stronger laws and be ready to enforce them.
AT: There’s so much work to be done on all fronts but I’d have to
say that the greatest need is for lawyers to work on behalf of farmed animals.
They occupy the lowest rung in our society. As agribusiness strives to develop
more cost-effective methods of exploiting animals for meat, milk, eggs and other
commodities, animals on the “farm” are made to endure ever more barbaric
treatment. At the same time, more and more states are passing legislation to
deny animals on the farm even basic protections. There is also a great need for
civil rights lawyers who are willing to defend the rights of activists to speak
out. Animal industry has a strong lobby working hard to inhibit these rights.
Do you think all animals should have the same rights, and if so what are they?
If not, what sort of legal approach do you feel would be most effective for animals?
LE: All animals should have the right to live free from mistreatment, torture,
and slaughter by humans. Legal scholars are beginning to debate how to codify
these rights. As a practical matter, I agree with Alan Dershowitz, who said that “rights
grow out of wrongs.” We should start by focusing on banning certain institutional
forms of cruelty such as intensive confinement systems on factory farms.
AT: Well, as an ethical vegan, my personal belief is that all animals should
have the right to live a life free from exploitation. We shouldn’t be raising
animals under brutal conditions simply to kill them for food when there are so
many more nutritious and readily available plant-based options. I hope that once
people start realizing that the flesh on their plates was a living, breathing
being who endured horrific suffering, they will reexamine their behaviors and
begin to recognize the myriad ways we exploit and abuse animals in our society.
Maybe then we can start to talk about granting animals what Gary Francione refers
to as the “right not to be treated as our property.” Without it,
we’re left to focus our legal efforts on addressing the most egregious
forms of exploitation.
What is the historical premise for the idea of animals as property?
AT: Well, there’s a theological basis—the bible—which gives
man dominion over animals. There’s also the historical view that nonhuman
animals lacked souls and other “human” characteristics and were thus
not worthy of ethical consideration. We were therefore justified in objectifying
and exploiting them for our own purposes. It used to be the case that women were
to some extent considered property. For example, a husband had a legal right
to the services of his wife. And of course, there were the slaves. I believe
the Dred Scott decision held in 1856 that even slaves who crossed over into free
states maintained the status of property. Historically, children, too, were considered
the property of their parents.
LE: Animals were also deemed unable to think, feel pain, or have any notion of
self. Science and experience have taught us that these beliefs are inaccurate.
We need to reexamine the property status of animals and bring the law in line
with modern notions of fairness and justice.
What are the most notable victories in animal rights law/legislation in the past
few years? Have there been any setbacks?
AT: Since animals are still considered property I guess I’d have to say
that there have been no victories in terms of “animal rights.” But
there is a lot of work being done which will help raise consciousness and hopefully
pave the way. For example, a couple of years ago, a coalition of groups and individuals
were able to get a ballot initiative passed in Florida banning the use of gestation
crates for sows. Also, on a local level, towns and cities across the country
have been banning circuses and other animal acts. More creative approaches are
also being taken. The farmed animal advocacy group Compassion Over Killing filed
a complaint with the Better Business Bureau alleging that the United Egg Producer’s “Animal
Care Certified” label is false and misleading. These are all opportunities
to educate the public about the suffering involved in our everyday use of animals.
Much more work still needs to be done to obtain standing for animals and those
speaking on their behalf to go into court and try to establish rights.
LE: In terms of litigation, perhaps the greatest victories have been related
to wildlife. Because of federal laws protecting endangered species and their
habitats, as well as migratory birds, these cases have been successful.
The setbacks are really just the status quo. Oftentimes the government agencies
charged with monitoring animal conditions are advocating on behalf of the industries
based on animal exploitation. For example, state and federal agriculture departments
are designed to protect the agriculture industry, state fish and game councils
are comprised of a majority of hunters. There will be little progress until forces
align to challenge the status quo.