Stephen Wells is the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Stephen founded and served for six years as the director of ALDF’s successful Animal Law Program, which provides support and resources to ALDF’s law professional and law student members. The ALDF organizes law firms across the country and coordinates pro bono opportunities for attorneys and firms to assist ALDF with its mission of protecting animals. Stephen joined the ALDF in 2000 and eventually took the leadership role of Executive Director in 2007. He has committed himself to animals and environmental protection and continues to lead the ALDF to make significant changes in laws supporting animals. In part 1, Stephen tells us how he got started, cases they have filed and the ones they have won, how people see animals, where our animal protection laws are and so much more! For more information on the ALDF you can visit their website here, http://aldf.org/
Welcome to the Professionals and Animal Rescue podcast, where goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This’ll Podcast is proudly sponsored by Joubert dot com. Do Bert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relate Transport. Now on with our show today, we’re doing part one of our interview with Stephen Wells. Stephen is the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He founded and served for six years, is the director of ailed DF successful Animal Law Program, but provide support and resource is to LDF law, professional and law student members. The ale Deaf also organizes law firms across the country and coordinates pro bono opportunities for attorneys and firms to assist the LDF was mission of protecting animals pressure. Joining LDF in 1999 Steve served as the executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage, where it became known for his work to protect Alaska’s wildlife. Since joining the LDF and eventually taking the leadership role of executive director in 2007 Stephen has committed himself to animal and environmental protection. And he continues to lead the ale DF to make significant changes in laws supporting animals. Hey, Stephen, welcome to the program. Thanks, Chris. So glad to be here, so give us a little bit of background on you. I know we’ve got your bio in in the show notes, but kind of tell us how you got into this wonderful world of animal rescue. Thanks. Yeah, well, you know, it was, um, as it is for most people, I think is a bit of, ah, winding path. Um, and, ah, other than the fact that I always had an affinity for animals and we always had dogs and cats growing up, I you know, I it wasn’t like I saw it coming. Um, but over time, it just became growing interest of mine. And at some point in my life, I realized that, you know, I could actually be doing something positive for animals full time, and that was really clear. Clearly my passion, um, at at one point. And I’m happy to say that that I’ve been able to do that ever since. Um, it’s had to say that there’s such a need. You know and and, ah, you know, through your show, your listeners have certainly heard from lots and lots of people and see, like the number of people getting involved in that there’s really a role to play for everyone. Um, and there’s so much need when it comes to animals for all types of, uh, animal protection and direct rescue work and so forth. And I’m just I’m heartened to see how many people, whether they do it professionally in full time, like I’ve been fortunate enough to do in my life or whether they do it is volunteers, uhm and spend a lot of their their their time doing it. It’s just, you know, it really, really takes that amount of effort. So I feel very fortunate. I have worked for the Animal Legal Defense Fund now for, uh, 17 years going on 18 which is hard for me to believe. It goes by very fast, and, ah, I’ve been the executive director now for 10 years and really feel like I’ve I’ve found my true calling and my passion, Um, because I really see the law as being ah fundamentally essential to to ah, not only the animals themselves most importantly, but also to you know, all the work that people are doing to help animals. You know, the changing laws helps rescue people and help shelters and, um, ultimately tracks back to the animals. But we’re really dealing with the fundamental tools that society has to provide protection and to make sure that our values as a society when it comes to animals, are recognized and respected. Yeah, give people a little bit of background on a L D. F. Because, I mean, you guys do so much and got some of the different programs that span a lot of areas. Maybe just kind of give everybody an overview of what your mission and what what your focus is. Sure. Well, our mission stated plainly, is to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. Uh, so that’s what what really makes us different, different and unique in the animal protection world is that were exclusively focused on legal pads to change, and I view that is as fundamentally important as I mentioned. It can also be a challenges you, As you said, you know, the work that we do is sometimes playing the long game. Um, and we have to be very creative in the law. And we have, Ah, just a brilliant legal team that is constantly looking for ways that we can apply the law or change the laws that apply to animals, um, in creative ways because it’s challenging and it’s it’s challenging because our laws, as they stand, are not doing a great job of protecting animals and to change. That requires focusing on the long game. You know, we’re fortunate to be ableto help animals in real time with some specific cases. But really, what we’re looking to do is to fundamentally change the way our laws view and protect animals. I often say that the fundamental problem for animals society is is that our laws themselves still consider animals essentially as things more like a chair than a living sentient being that we know them to be now. And that makes both working in the law challenging. And of course, it sets animals up to not be given the consideration that they ought to in our society, because I see ah both as our challenge and but also a huge opportunity is the fact that the laws have our laws have really fallen behind where our society and I think people and generally I think they ought to be. You know, I think people have a sense that animals should be treated a certain way. And I think most people don’t realize that our laws are not holding us as a society to that standard. And they’re really shocked when they see ah, you know, an animal abuser get away with practically a slap on the wrist, for example, in a criminal cruelty case. Um, and they’re shocked when they learn of some of the horrific cruelty, institutional cruelty that can happen in places like puppy mills and factory farms and realize that the horrible things that they sometimes see through an investigation or something are legal under our laws. So again, that steps the challenge and the opportunity, Um, and that’s the space we work in. So you mentioned something that I’ve heard mention a couple of times through different animal laws that I hear about the turn sentiment being Is that a term now that’s starting to take on some? I’m not even sure how to describe it. Is that really the term that people should be using and that the law recognizes. No, it’s it’s not, Ah, term that that’s legally defined. I was using it in the more broad sense. You know, Chris, one of the things that fundamentally changed when it’s come to animals really in ah, in my lifetime certainly is our understanding of of animals. Um, you know, it was not that long ago. You know, uh, when when some of our laws were initially started. Where, um, you know, people did think of animals this things and thought there was a a fundamental, you know, difference between humans and other animals. Um, and we know through science and study and so forth. We know so much more now. So when I use the term sentence, I’m talking about the fact that, you know, science alone has shown us what what many of us knew common sense wise. Ah, a long time before that. You know that animals feel, um, and they think and they suffer. Um, and they have the capacity more capacity than we ever might have managed for things like developing social relationships and and performing complex tasks. And, um, all saying all things that you know, 50 years ago, we just took it for granted that only humans had these capacities. And the more we learn, the more complex, the more sentient, if you will meaning, having having these much more complex capacities, we learn, animals have. And you know that’s a challenge. Because when you know we we’ve developed processes again, you know, in factory farms and puppy mills and other sorts of institutional, you know, operations that involve animals. It’s a lot more complex question when you know the law has to acknowledge facts, and it’s a fact that animals can feel and think and sense and feel fear and terror and all those things that you know, it’s fundamentally changes the equation from, ah, world where we were able to just say, Oh, they’re just animals, you know? They’re just things. They’re just property in there. Their value is in their utility. Two people, as opposed to having, you know, in a, you know, an eight feelings, just like we do. Yeah, no, that’s really that’s really interesting because you guys cover some of the different areas. I’m curious. How do you combat that, right. If if the law doesn’t recognize it that way. What grounds are you using to combat some of these issues? You know, like Tony the Tiger and and chimpanzees and wildlife. What basis to use? Yeah, that’s a great question. And so that gets to the practical. You know what I was talking about before? Sort of. The more the philosophical underpinnings. But as a practical matter, um, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has, you know, we’ve been around for 39 years now, and, ah, 39 years ago, there really was no such thing as animal law. You know, there were certainly laws of all kinds that in one way or another touchdown, animals. But nobody was thinking in terms of a body of law that was specific to animals. And so that was really the Our founder, Joyce Tischler, was a lawyer, and she saw that opportunity, and she saw that animal protection was really never gonna truly advance to its full potential in our society until our laws started to catch up. So fast. Forward now, we’ve got 39 years, we’ve grown quite a bit, and we have an amazing team of legal experts who are constantly, you know, able to research and look at the laws and figure out how to apply them. So in some cases, for example, with animal cruelty laws in all, 50 states have animal cruelty laws, there are, you know, animal protection laws that we can help directly apply. The challenge with criminal laws is that you know, there they have to be applied. Generally speaking, they have to be applied by public prosecutors. In other words, the Animal Legal Defense fund can’t file charges. That’s that’s a ah, right, held only by public prosecutors. But we do trainings, so that’s that’s one way we can help in that world. We do trainings for prosecutors and law enforcement. Um, we call them crime, scene the courtroom and weaken train everything from how to do a proper investigation for an animal cruelty crime. How to gather evidence and preserve evidence right up to when a prosecutor brings a case. We will help write briefs if they want us to do legal research. And we also do trainings and even things like, uh, how to select a jury like teach. Teach prosecutors, um, what to look for in selecting a proper jury, really every detail, um, and That’s something that’s been very well received in the criminal justice world. And we have great relationships with law enforcement and, ah, like the National Prosecutors Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Um, where we’ve developed credibility as experts in animal law and can help make sure that you know the best, that the criminal law moves forward and that when it’s applied, the best possible cases brought for the best possible outcome. So that’s one example you know, using the cruelty laws, which are one of the fundamental tools we have to work with. Separate from that. We also have a team that does litigation. So this is where these are the cases that we directly can file and, you know, the cases run a large gamut. We, ah, you know there are. There are laws that we can use as they exist, and then we can. Also, our litigation team gets very creative about finding ways to apply the law. And so, you know, our cases have have, ah, you know, had results. Like are we filed a case against ah roadside zoo called Cricket Hollow Zoo in Iowa. Ah, a couple of years ago and we won, ah, precedent setting victory that resulted in the release of two sanctuary of animals that they were keeping in terrible conditions that were endangered species. So they were keeping wildlife, including some of which were endangered species. And so we set a legal precedent. It had never been done successfully before in applying the federal Endangered Species Act, which is a law that many people are familiar with. That usually protect animals in the wild that are, you know, becoming endangered of going extinct and provides far more protection than to try and get them back to healthy numbers. Well, we argued that there’s no reason that the Endangered Species Act shouldn’t apply to endangered species that are kept in captivity. Um, and that was typically not done. So we would see things like, Ah, like cricket Hollow zoo, where species listed as endangered were being kept in terrible conditions that were clearly not not beneficial for them. Um, and we won. And so that’s an example of, you know, not only winning a case that helped directly helped animals and got them to sanctuary, but also, you know, set a precedent that we can build on to say OK, now there are lots of endangered species being kept in terrible conditions and roadside zoos. Um, we can build on that and not only not only for us to file cases, but, you know, that’s that’s the key. When you change the law, you know you’re making that available to, you know, any other group or, you know, potentially even, um, you know, local local people dealing with a case in their backyard. Um, so it’s, you know, that’s why the change in the laws are so important. You know, I want to bring up a point that you mentioned. Um, case lavishes legislative law, you know, because obviously, as you said, when you set a precedent, you there’s a case. How do you then take that? And how do you work with lawmakers to turn that into the official law, even just beyond the court system? Yeah. No, that’s absolutely. And you set me up for my for my next, uh, you know, the next part of what we do. So you’re right. There’s really 22 major ways that ah, laws, air changed in our society and one is through winning particular kinds of cases there. That are unique and new to the court system. You set precedents. You can set precedents that then can be, um, once precedents are set that generally becomes the law. Um, and future judges will look back and see that this decision was made in this way, and they’ll use that as a precedent to decide the same way. And our laws usually follow that Judges air very generally strictly adhere to precedent, um, in law. So that’s one way that that our legal system creates laws. So the other way, which people are probably more familiar with because it’s the part that you know citizens are involved in through through, ah, electing lawmakers. And that is legislation. And of course, you know, laws are made at the federal, state and county in ah municipality level. And this is where it’s really important that, you know, people be engaged and involved because, you know, in making laws, legislators and our elected officials, as most people know, can and often are influenced by power and wealth. Um, unfortunately, a lot of the you know, the systems, like big agricultural companies that run factory farms, for example, have enormous power at both the federal and state level in their legislatures because they have, you know, vast amounts of money, which the animal protection movement does not. But what we have is is numbers. And so that’s why it’s really important that people who care about animals get involved with their legislative process at the state and local and federal level, and pay attention to how their lawmakers vote on on animal issues. Because, you know, the other way that laws were made is through legislation, and that is that. You know, people, usually through their Legislature, will come up with an idea to change the law, and it gets introduced and voted on by their elected officials and the Legislature and becomes law. And so the Animal Legal Defense Fund. It does have a program focused on legislation, and we’ve been, ah, grateful to be a part of, you know, our own initiatives. But also we work ah, with legislation. As I said, numbers are important. So we often work in coalition with both local and state groups and also other national groups where we need large numbers to make things happen. So, for example, here in California, you know the way had legislation that passed a couple of years ago that has ended, you know, captivity for, uh, orcas, for example, the Orca Protection Act. Um, you can’t import orcas. You can’t breed orcas. Ah, also known as killer rails, um, into the state of California anymore, which basically puts the sunset on, you know, things like Seaworld, uh, which, you know, when the current orcas who are in captivity there, um, ultimately passed away. They cannot be replaced. So we’re seeing the power of the legislative process in ending something. Um, and I should say, especially for your listeners in Florida, we’re very, very pleased that we took a bill mirroring the California Orca Protection Act to Florida, and it was just introduced. And so we will be asking folks to get involved, uh, even nationally. But certainly our friends in Florida will ask them to get involved and try and help us pass the same bill essentially in Florida. You know, I’m I’m glad you bring that up because one of the things I find even for myself, it seems very intimidating, right? For those of us that are not involved in legislation and, you know, calling my local or my state rep for my national. You know, Congressman doesn’t really have an effect. I mean, where do I begin with that? Yeah, you know, it can be disheartening. And I think, you know, certainly through the news and so forth that people watch. You know, it’s easy to get disheartened because we are constantly bombarded with you. No signs of, you know, our lawmakers who are supposed to be representing us doing things that seem to benefit a small minority of ah, you know, they say wealthier, powerful industries and so forth and seeming to act in ways that run counter to to, you know, the ordinary citizens interests. But I’ll tell you, you know, without people getting involved in the legislative process and doing the work of, you know, knowing who your representatives are getting in touch with them, I mean, they work for you and never forget that and, you know, letting them know how you feel. You know, making that call to their office when there’s a bill that either that would help animals, or possibly one, that that might be harmful animals that they need to hear that you’re opposed to, you know, and letting them know where you stand, and and it really is important, Chris, because the like I say the the advantage we have is in numbers, and that means something. I mean, ultimately, legislators get elected, Um, and the thing that you know, they rely on a lot of money so they can run ads and that sort of thing. So money certainly talks. But ultimately, you know, that’s the place where, ah, citizens, if they make their voice heard and we have the numbers, you know, more people want to see animals protected than then do not. Um, so it is really, really important. And we’ve seen it time and time again that, you know, a bill that is is opposed by wealthy and powerful interests passes anyway because the legislators fear the power of of people in numbers. And when they make their voice heard taken really roar, you know, one in particular because you kind of mentioned it. But these AG gag laws, you know, maybe if you wouldn’t mind taking a second just kind of briefly explain to people what what that means when they hear ag gag and kind of give us a perspective on what’s going on in that area across the country right now. So I’m glad you asked about a gig Laws, Chris, cause that Ah, that’s a good example of legislation that was passed to protect a powerful interest that was clearly not the will of the people. Um, and this does happen so ag gag laws to be clear, our that’s the term used for laws that were pushed by the AG industry and the number of states. And essentially, what they do is outlaw taking video or photos on factory farms. And the purpose is that the industry was very much embarrassed by the number of investigations that were happening, that we’re showing the horrific way than animals are treated in factory farms. Um, and rather than clean up their act, they decided to go to their friends in the Legislature and pushed for laws that essentially outlaw being able to take photos and videos. And it’s not only, ah, horrible concept in that essentially, what these laws are doing are protecting animal abuse from scrutiny. But it’s also a direct violation of our fundamental constitutional rights as Americans. And so we worked with coalition of national groups to combat the passage of AG gag laws. Ah, and have been successful more recently and stopping most of the new ones. But seven states did pass some version of an AG gag law. And so the Animal Legal Defense Fund, never willing to let bad laws stand alone, decided that we were going to look for ways to attack the laws that had already passed. And we’re already on the books. So we did. A lot of research took us over a year to put together the first case, which was filed in 2014 against the state of Utah. Um, and then we filed our second case against State of Idaho year later, and I’m happy to say that those two are Two initial cases have been litigated, and we won. Ah, we one, um, the Idaho case first and struck down that state’s AG gag law. And we had developed a coalition because, you know, because it was, you know, not just animal protection issues. Although that was the primary focus of why these laws passed. But it was also a threat to you can imagine, um, you know, journalists, for example, being able to document, uh, you know conditions, you know, even conditions for let’s say, workers on these places or, you know, environmental issues that are happening. You know, factor. Farms are generally ah, really horrible polluters. Um, and they would like to hide that fact as well, you know? So we had lawyers. Uh, of course, we had Ah, uh, the animal legal defense fund, Some other animal protection groups. But we also had workers safety groups involved that joined our lawsuit. We had, ah, reporters and journalists involved in these issues. So it was really a victory not just for the animal protection movement, but for all Americans who care about our constitutional rights. Um and so we’re very pleased to win. The Idaho case was appealed, and while it was on appeal, the state of Idaho appealed. We won our Utah case, and the state of Utah decided not to appeal. I think they saw the handwriting on the wall. So they Meanwhile, we won the Utah case, hands down and struck down the I Google on the state of Utah. And then I’m happy to say, Chris, that just this the end of last week, we had decision from the Idaho case in the ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld our victory there as well struck that down. Yeah. So we’ve been ableto, you know, challenge these bad laws. And, you know, as litigation does, it can sometimes take some time. It took a couple of years, but we were able to overturn them. And we’ve got lawsuits, ag gag lawsuits against two other states pending North Carolina and Iowa. Um, and we’re examining the remaining three states looking for ways to challenge those laws as well. Our goal, really is to just get ag gag laws completely off the books. Yeah. No. And that’s great. I’m glad to hear of your success is, And I’m sure it feels good. Particularly like you said, It’s been years worth of work to put these cases together. So you guys were really playing the long game, So thank you very much, Steven. I really appreciate you coming on the program, ensuring things. Thanks so much, Chris. It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. If you’re not already a member, joined the air p A to take advantage of all the resources we have to offer and don’t forget to sign up with do bert dot com. It’s free and helps automate the most difficult tasks in animal rescue.