Joyce Tischler began bringing home injured animals when she was just about old enough to walk the block around her New York City home. “A special passion for animals always existed for me,” she says. “I didn’t really question it, I just followed my instincts.” That instinct led her to get involved in caring for feral cats while in college, and focus her only law school law review article on legal rights for animals — the first ever in the world to address the issue, and one that’s still widely cited.
In 1979, well before animal law was a recognized field and when the legal profession was still heavily male-dominated, Tischler co-founded Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) — the first animal law organization in the United States. In the 25 years that Tischler was executive director of the Bay Area-based organization, ALDF has filed groundbreaking lawsuits, including ones to stop bear and mountain lion hunts, the removal of wild horses from federal lands, and suits challenging the intensive confinement of farmed animals. In the process, the group has saved the lives of many animals, including dogs, cats, birds, chimpanzees, horses, and wild burros. Tischler currently serves as ALDF’s general counsel. Her trailblazing work helped lay the foundation for animal law to be taken seriously in the US. It’s not for nothing that she’s called the “mother of animal law.”
I spoke with Tischler recently about her early years as an animal rights activist, the challenges she faced as a woman lawyer, and misogyny in the movement.
Oh, and just so you know, Tischler doesn’t eat her clients.
What made you decide to become an animal rights activist?
The term animal rights came about in popular culture around about 1975 after Peter Singer published Animal Liberation. Like many, it was Animal Liberation that drew me to the movement. Which got me from just loving animals to being an activist-attorney who wanted to protect animals. That was really a turning point for how a lot of people were viewing animals and for how they saw themselves vis-a-vis activism for animals. Prior to that time there were few national groups working on animal rights
And how did this lead you into animal law?
I went to law school as the result of being a teenager in the 1960s, which was a very heated period in American history … After law school, I ended up just taking a job and learning how to practice law. I started volunteering for the Fund for Animals office in San Francisco because I still wanted to have that animal connection, and through that I met another lawyer, Larry Kessenick. When we realized we were both interested in animal rights, we put an ad in the local legal newspaper for other attorneys interested in animal rights and we started meeting once a month, and that was the birth of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
That was one of the places animal law started. You know, animal law was starting in different places in the country, all at about the same time. All of us not knowing who the others were but all coming out the 1960s being activist-minded attorneys.
Do you think there’s been any progress for animals since you started working on animal rights?
The animal law movement was formed 40 years ago. That’s a pretty young movement. In that time, what have we done? We’ve created a large library of cases and decisions in which we are fighting the powers that be on absolutely every front, in trying to win better conditions for animals and trying to get courts to recognize that they [animals] have interests; we are building a foundation. You have to build a foundation, and the next generation builds on that foundation and the next and next. So I feel as if we’ve built a very solid foundation. We are starting to win more cases than we used to. We used to lose most of the time … There are case books, there are animal law classes in most US law schools, there are student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapters. Animal law has become something that more and more lawyers, judges, and prosecutors know about.
The change that we see is really inch by inch, and you just have to be patting yourself on the back, ok, made it another inch!
Forty years ago, when I came into the movement, the big issues were animals in research and fur and hunting. Practically no one was working on animals in the food chain. Activism on factory farming really didn’t start on a movement-wide basis until 1999. And we come at this with no federal law to protect farmed animals. Now there’s a humane transport law, there’s a humane slaughter law, both are under-enforced, both are pretty weak and don’t apply to a lot of the animals. But it’s some progress. In terms of when the animals are being raised in CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations], there’s nothing at the federal level and most of the state anti-cruelty laws specifically don’t apply to animals in CAFOs or on farms at all. So we have a long, long way to go.
What excites me on working on CAFOs — that’s my passion now — is that this is a crossover campaign. CAFOs don’t only impact the animals, they impact human health, the environment, water quality, air quality, environmental justice, all of these issues can come together under the umbrella of CAFOs and they are starting to. [At ALDF] we look at it from the perspective of the animal, but also from the perspective of the environment. We are seeing science that you can’t raise enough meat to feed all these of people, that’s just not going to happen and it’s still going to impact the environment terribly. From our perspective, the reality is that we need move away from meat-eating at the level that it is and hopefully altogether. We’ve never eaten meat at the level we are eating it and it is killing the planet.
When you started out you were one of the few women lawyers in the field of animal law. What was that like?
I took a job at a law firm before I came to ALDF full time, I was the first woman attorney on staff there. Everybody else who was female was a paralegal or a law secretary. It became really obvious to me very quickly that I shouldn’t have lunch with the women, because that would brand me [as a secretary instead of a lawyer]. So there were things there that I had to really be conscious of. I intentionally never learned to make coffee. To this day I don’t know how to make coffee, because I wanted to have an excuse if I was asked.
Also, when I came into the movement the image of people who loved animals was the old lady in tennis shoes. That was it. That was an image that as an attorney and as a woman, I didn’t want to be associated with. So I felt I had to distinguish myself. And that meant dressing appropriately in heels and suits. When I went to court or made any public appearance, [that meant] no tennis shoes, no sloppiness, and being very logical. I tried to stay away from emotions. I’ve since grown as a person and an activist and my ideas have changed. But back then it was still, Don’t show any emotion. Be very logical. Never cry. Don’t show them that you’re upset. So I was, you know, a robot lawyer. I felt like I had to be being a woman speaking for animals. I never wished to be a man, but I just … I was aware that society was going to be less tuned in to listening to what I said as a woman.
Have you ever faced any workplace harassment?
I must give off certain don’t mess with me pheromones, because the animal rights movement, as you’ve probably seen, is full of sexual predators. I have been in a room alone with many of the men who were known to be predators and they never made any kind of advances. Whatever vibe I was giving off, thank goodness for that, because I have talked to women who have been harassed, whose careers have been sidetracked, and it just pains me and it angers me, but I can’t say that personally, it happened to me.
I’m surprised to hear you say that the animal rights movement is full of sexual predators. One didn’t really hear much about that until recently.
Well, it’s been swept under the rug. Actually, I knew about it when I first entered the movement and it was the Old Boys — [Cleaveland] Amory, Belton [Paul Mouras], Mark Morris — and I guess I thought when they retired or died that was going to cease to exist. Then I just sort of let it go. But a few years ago, I was invited to a weekend retreat with a group of women in the movement, and that was when I first started hearing about the sexual harassment that they were dealing with — the glass ceilings that they were experiencing and the sexual harassment.
The women were working for a variety of organizations, from the biggest, Humane Society or PETA or ASPCA, and some working for very small groups, who were the heads of their own organizations. So it was an interesting and aha moment for me, to be in a room with women who were facing this and then trying to talk about, well, what can we do about this?
Nothing really came of it, we stayed in touch for a certain amount of time and then [the momentum] dissipated and it didn’t really rear its head until the big brouhaha with the Humane Society of the United States. [In January HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle and another prominent advocate, Paul Shapiro, stepped down after long-standing sexual harassment complaints against them became public.]
[The HSUS case] has stirred a lot of other discussion and it has, happily, I think, really shaken people up in the movement. It can’t be just hey, put aside your feelings, we are all in this just for the animals. “When we work for animals we are working at the roots of any objectification.”Which it was for so many years, and frankly it was coming from women leaders as well as male. We are all complicit.
Do you see any links between the struggle for animal rights and women’s rights?
I’ve often said when we work for animals we are working at the roots of any objectification. Whatever the subject of that objectification is, the subject is going to suffer; the subject is not going to be given his, her, or its due, because the oppressor doesn’t view it, them, he, she, as an individual, but rather as a means to an end.
I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s so painful to watch that show, but what they are doing to those women is indistinguishable from what we do to animals. We cage cows and pigs and chickens in horrible conditions and we push their bodies to the brink without ever thinking about what it does to them, and all of these are thinking, feeling beings who have emotions, desires, social needs. All of this is ignored. It’s all this male testosterone driven dominance over others and narcissism — it impacts women, it impacts animals, it impacts the environment.
I sometimes get a little bit hopeless, and I’m usually an optimistic person. But sometimes the difference between our sexes is a mile wide and a mile deep. I see some men I know, and I really appreciate that they are trying to close the divide in their personal lives. But it just feels everything is clouded right now by the current occupation of my country by an administration that’s against everything I believe in.
Any advice for younger women who are looking to work in animal rights?
Network. Network as fully as you can with other women. If you are facing problems wherever you are working, and the problem is everywhere — and I’m talking about the problem of being treated as a lower-class person because you are a woman — band together and find strength in numbers. There’s always been strength in numbers. If you are getting harassed, speak up. There’s always another job out there somewhere. For a lot of women, they feel as if this was the job of my dreams and I’ve just got to take it. No one should ever have to take abuse. No one should ever have to take micro-aggressions because of your sex, because of your gender, because of your race or ethnicity. Have that belief in yourself. There is life after whatever it is that’s happening.
And meditate. I know it sounds like a strange thing to tell people but I came to meditation late in life. I wish I had come to it 40 years earlier. Because meditation teaches us about the impermanence of our thought, the impermanence of a situation, and it teaches us to let go. It’s a tool that helps us deal with the stress in our lives, and also develop an attitude that helps to instill confidence.
I would also tell women, work on your own confidence. Women are trained to not be confident. They are trained to be nurturers, they are trained to allow other people to step in front of them. Don’t allow other people, especially men, to step in front of you … Do whatever you need to become a confident, independent, and still, loving, caring, compassionate, human being.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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