It was just another Thursday afternoon in my dreary life. My day job was with a firm that specialized in real estate, and I hated getting up in the morning. There wasn’t anything in particular wrong with the work, but the thought of spending the next 30 years in a job I cared so little about filled me with dread. When the phone rang in my law office, I had no idea that I was about to have a conversation that would change my life.
It was Larry Kessenick. Two years earlier, in 1979, we’d started a group for lawyers and law students interested in animal rights. Each month we’d meet in the cramped, flea-infested office of the Fund for Animals in San Francisco to teach ourselves about legal issues related to animals. I cared deeply about their suffering: the 200 million hunted every year for sport, the billions raised and killed for food, the 20 million used in research and testing, the eight million killed by the fur industry, the five million dogs and cats who died in shelters and pounds each year. I wished I could spend all of my time handling lawsuits that would afford them greater protections. In fact, while a law student at USD, I had written a law review article in which I argued that animals should be granted legal rights.
But when I graduated from USD in 1977, there was no such thing as “animal law,” and certainly no paying jobs.
The call from Larry was about to change all of that. He had just received a plea for help from the Animal Protection Institute, who’d fielded an anonymous call that the U.S. Navy had shot and killed over 600 feral burros at their Naval Weapons Testing Center in China Lake, Calif., and they were planning to shoot another 500 starting on Saturday morning. They would keep shooting on weekends, until they killed 5,000 burros.
I was incensed; we couldn’t allow this slaughter to continue. But it meant that I had to file a lawsuit in federal court by Friday, the next day, and convince a judge to issue a temporary restraining order. It was 1981; there was no Internet and no online legal research. “State of the art” was a typewriter with a bit of memory. I went home to my cozy little apartment in San Francisco, fed my dog and two cats, and set up my old manual typewriter, the one I had used in college and law school. All night long, I drank coffee and tried to keep my mind clear as I typed the pleadings that we would need to halt the shootings.
Early on Friday morning, I rushed to the office and cornered the firm’s most experienced litigator. I was a “baby lawyer” who’d been practicing for only three years, and I needed advice: Where should I file the case and what sort of notice did I have to give the Navy? Within hours, I was on a plane to Fresno, then in front of a federal court judge pleading my case, praying he would understand the importance of not shooting these defenseless animals. The Navy’s attorneys made their argument. Then, as if in a dream, I heard the judge issue a temporary restraining order telling the Navy to “call off the guns” until there could be a hearing to review whether the Navy’s plan violated federal environmental law.
I had no idea that such orders are rarely granted. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that —in my single-minded quest to save those burros — I’d never even considered the possibility that I could fail. Two other attorneys joined me in litigating, negotiating and ultimately settling that lawsuit eight months later. Not one more burro was shot.
In truth, when I saved those animals, I saved myself. It didn’t take long for me and my employers to realize that my heart wasn’t in real estate. I needed to leave the safety of the law firm and take the risk of doing animal protection legal work full-time, even though I had no idea how to make a living doing it. Yes, it was painful and scary, but it was also necessary if I was to become the lawyer and the person I was meant to be.
It’s been 27 years since the phone call that changed my life. In that time, my group, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, has saved the lives of all sorts of animals including dogs, mountain lions, bears, cats, and, of course, burros. While we’re not always successful, we are always seeking to provide animals with greater protections. Now, more attorneys are specializing in the field of animal law, and over 100 law schools offer animal law classes, including USD.
Over the years, I’ve learned many lessons, but the most important one was to listen closely to that inner voice. Oh, and should that phone call come for you, drop everything and answer: It just might be your authentic life on the other end of the line.
Joyce Tischler is the co-founder and General Counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. For more information go to www.aldf.org.