“Sometimes You Can Lose the Battle and Still Win The War”: Katherine Meyer’s Fight for Justice for Animals

Katherine Meyer (photo by Eric Glitzenstein)

Katherine Meyer (photo by Eric Glitzenstein)

Katherine Meyer is a leading figure in the field of animal law and a founding partner at Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks, a law firm based in Washington, D.C. She has spent a large percentage of her professional life fighting to make the world a better place for animals and to protect the environment, and I was eager to meet her and interview her for the Unbound Project. Earlier this year I was in Washington for a conference and Meyer graciously agreed to meet me while I was in town. While I was looking forward to chatting with her about her ground-breaking work in the field of animal law, I was somewhat intimidated to meet her in person – what would she be like?, I wondered. We had arranged to meet in a vegan-friendly coffee shop near my hotel. “I’ll be wearing pink rain boots,” she told me as we arranged our meeting. That detail made me relax a bit – Meyer may be a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom, but she also clearly had a playful side.


I need not have worried about meeting Meyer. She greeted me with a hug and warm smile, and we spent the next hour drinking soy lattes and talking about the many ways that the law can be an important avenue for animal protection. I learned, for example, about how it isn’t always necessary to create new laws to fight animal cruelty. Meyer is especially skilled at taking existing laws and figuring out how they can be used to creatively advocate for the protection of animals. As she pointed out, “we try to use existing laws to protect animals to the greatest extent possible.”

For example, Meyer’s firm figured out that they could use the existing Endangered Species Act in the United States as a way to help captive animals. Previously there had existed a loophole that exempted members of an endangered species who were in captivity—chimpanzees in zoos, for example, wouldn’t have been granted the same legal protections as chimpanzees in the wild. Meyer and her team petitioned the United States Fish & Wildlife Service to amend the existing law so that all members of an endangered species were treated the same way. This was a multi-year effort and they drew upon the knowledge and expertise of a coalition of chimpanzee experts to help build a rock-solid scientific and legal basis for their claims. In February 2010 the petition was submitted, and in 2015 the Fish & Wildlife Service granted the petition which declared that all chimpanzees are endangered and, as such, are to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Knuckles, a chimpanzee rescued by the Centre for Great Apes.

Knuckles, a chimpanzee rescued by the Centre for Great Apes.

At times the existing laws that Meyer and her team work with have been on the books for many decades as some state animal cruelty codes date as far back as the 19th century. While some might not see historical legislation as having much relevance in our contemporary society, Meyer finds creative ways to use these long-standing codes to help make a difference for animals today. In fact, she used this tactic with one of the first animal law cases she was involved with, an effort to shut down an annual pigeon shoot in a small rural Pennsylvania town. This was an event in which thousands of pigeons who had been captured throughout the year were released and then shot by those participating in the event. Most of the birds were not instantly killed by the gunshots, rather they were mortally wounded and lay on the ground suffering and slowly dying for hours. Meyer and her team learned that at the end of the event little “trapper boys” went out in the fields to pick up the wounded animals. They got one of the leading pediatric psychologists in the nation to support their efforts to shut down the event by providing a statement about how this kind of activity was not good for a child’s well-being.

It was, however, the state cruelty code in Pennsylvania turned out to be the most important part of the fight to stop this annual pigeon shoot. This piece of legislation was written in the 19th century and it had a unique provision that permitted an agent of a humane society to get involved in order to “prevent an action.” In most states the cruelty codes only permit involvement by animal advocacy groups after the fact, so this was an important feature of the legal landscape in Pennsylvania and one that helped Meyer and her team strategize about how best to stop this event. They eventually partnered with the Pennsylvania SPCA, local humane agents, and the Fund for Animals in order to introduce a series of lawsuits to try and stop the pigeon shoot.

This was an uphill battle as the pigeon shoot had been happening for years and was a much-loved community event. When the case first went to court the presiding judge declared it as “frivolous” and threatened to sanction Meyer for bringing it forward. She was undeterred and took the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where she was given a unanimous ruling in her favor. This was a monumental win—for many years animal rights activists had been trying unsuccessfully to stop this pigeon hunt, but Meyer and her team succeeded because they knew how to use statutes and apply existing law to the situation. They conducted extensive research in preparation for the case, including gathering data on the number of birds who were wounded instead of killed outright during the event. This allowed them to draw on existing case law specific to the treatment of wounded animals. In this case and in all subsequent animal law cases Meyer has worked on, she insists that her team take the time to plot out a strategy that involves “moving the law in the direction you need it to move.”

At this point in our conversation, Meyer stopped to stress that “sometimes you can lose the battle and win the war.” What she meant here is that often she knows that the cases she takes on will be difficult to win, but she takes them on anyhow in the hopes that the public education that inevitably occurs as a result of such cases will help change broader conversations about how animals should be treated in our contemporary society.

One such example was when Meyer brought a case against Feld Entertainment in an attempt to get Asian elephants removed from the Ringling Brothers circus acts. This became a massive lawsuit that played out over many years. There were many “highs and lows” throughout the process. Many of the world’s leading elephant experts became part of the team (most of whom worked pro bono), and the case eventually got to trial. Meyer was proud of the effort that this team put together—she called it a “great case”—but, in the end, the judge ruled against them on “standing” —he held that none of the plaintiffs in the case had enough of a “personal” stake in the outcome to provide the court with subject matter jurisdiction. As a consequence, the judge did not decide the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, including whether the use of bullhooks and chaining of the animals violated the Endangered Species Act. This was a “heartbreaking” loss for Meyer, one that was compounded by the fact that Feld Entertainment brought retaliatory action against Meyer and her team.

However, all was not lost. This lawsuit drew sustained attention to the systematic abuse of animals in circus acts. The facts of the case and particularly the evidence adduced at the six-week trial held in the case were presented through major media outlets, including previously hidden details drawn from internal documents. The testimony in which employees admitted that elephants were beaten with bullhooks was particularly damning and served as an important catalyst for larger conversations. The attention this case received in the media led to widespread concern about the treatment of elephants in circus acts which, in turn, ushered in a number of instances of individual jurisdictions banning the use of bullhooks and paying closer attention to the ways in which animals were treated in these kinds of ventures.

Feld Entertainment recently announced that, after 150 years of the elephants being the symbol of the circus, it was “retiring” all elephants from their circus performances, which it just did in May 2016. During the legal battles representatives from Feld Entertainment testified that a circus could not exist without elephants, but they have since changed their tune. This is, no doubt, in large part to the increased public awareness about the treatment of elephants in circus acts as a result of the case that Meyer brought forward. Of this shift she remarked that “we may have technically lost the case, but it was worth it in the end. There will be no more baby elephants forced to endure the training and grueling treatment needed to make these wild animals perform ‘tricks’ in a circus. Now we need to get the elephants taken out of the circus to legitimate sanctuaries.”

An elephant performing in a circus act.

An elephant performing in a circus act.

When Meyer first started practicing law, “animal law” as we now know it did not exist. She began her professional career doing advocacy work for humans, and it was in this capacity that she learned how to think strategically about the law. She has always loved animals and has long felt a deep emotional connection with them. She fondly recalls the many cats and dogs who shared her home as she was growing up, including a Boxer named April who had a special place in her heart. She also remembers how uncomfortable she felt during class trips to the zoo—instead of enjoying herself, she left feeling sad. Thanks to the developments in the field of animal law in recent years, she is now able to combine that love of animals with her professional work.

In 1993 Meyer and her husband (Eric Glitzenstein) started their own firm which focused on environmental law and wildlife protection. Before too long before animal rights organizations began to contact Meyer & Glitzenstein (now Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks) to seek assistance with prosecuting perpetrators of animal cruelty, including federal and state agencies that were taking actions adverse to wildlife. These organizations who had contacted Meyer & Glitzenstein for help had rarely dealt with this form of animal advocacy before, but, as Meyer recalls, “these were people with good ideas and urgent matters.” Meyer and Glitzenstein worked with these organizations to figure out which legal strategies would make the most sense in each individual case. At times these strategies were successful and resulted in a victory in court, but often this was not the case. However, even when they did not win in court, Meyer always felt like progress had been made—“even just pursuing a meritorious case is useful as it furthers education on the topic. The more this happens, the more the public learns, and the more it becomes politically incorrect to mistreat animals and ignore the needs of wildlife.”

Dr. Theodora Capaldo, the President and Executive Director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society deeply admires Meyer’s work and describes her as someone who “will not back down from hard cases.” Capaldo especially praises Meyer’s ability to “find a way through complex scenarios.”

Meyer works hard and has incredibly high standards, something she and Mr. Glitzenstein demand from the entire team at Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks. When the firm decides to bring a case forward it will always have been meticulously thought-out and planned. “We try not to let a brief go out the door with so much as a typo in it,” Meyer stresses, “we are up against the federal government and extremely prestigious corporate law firms, and our work needs to be of the highest caliber for us to have any chance of being successful in court.” Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks has developed a reputation as a firm that doesn’t “make idle threats about bringing law suits to vindicate the rights of animals,” and their opponents take them seriously in court. This has been incredibly important as the fields of environmental and animal law developed. As is often the case with emerging areas of knowledge, initially there were many who were skeptical about the legitimacy of these areas of practice, so Meyer knew just how crucial it was to always demonstrate their diligence and professionalism, to force people to take these cases as seriously as they would in any other sub-field of the law.

While many of the cases that Meyer has been involved in have been instrumental in shifting both policy and popular perception when it comes to the treatment of animals, she is quick to point out that successful advocacy happens on a number of different levels. “Every single part of advocacy counts,” she stresses, “it all adds up to public education, and public education is the most important element. It is the only way that things will change.” She points to films like Blackfish and The Cove as important aspects of animal advocacy because they reach a broad audience. She also sees humane education as being a very important avenue through which to continue to make the world a better place for animals–“teachers are so important, and kids have a natural inclination to love animals.”

Meyer also feels that it is important for animal rights groups and environmental groups to find more common ground. In many of her cases she ends up working with both environmental and animal organizations as co-plaintiffs, and because of this is keenly aware of how important it is to bridge the gaps that can exist between these two forms of advocacy work. She acknowledges that this is not always easy, but that it is an incredibly important goal. She sees “habitat protection as an animal rights issue” and, likewise, feels that environmental groups need to “understand that protecting wildlife is protecting the ecosystem. It isn’t just about protecting the land, but also about protecting the animals who live there.”

Meyer is now a leading figure in animal law, and has served as a mentor for many law clerks, interns, and associates who have worked with her. She finds it very rewarding to see so many of the people she has mentored branching out and finding success in this field, including some that she has nominated to be featured in the Unbound Project. For example, she points to Delcianna Winders the first fellow in animal law at Harvard Law School, and someone that Meyer refers to as a “wonderful, smart, and courageous lawyer.” She also was quick to praise the work of Amy Atwood and Tanya Sanerib who are both attorneys for the Centre for Biological Diversity, an organization that Meyer describes as “one of the most aggressive, effective, environmental groups in the country.” Meyer has been especially impressed by Atwood and Sanerib’s “amazing energy, intelligence and work ethic.” She also has high praise for the firm’s former associate, Michelle Sinnott, who served as the paralegal for the Ringling Brothers trial and is now an attorney with the prestigious environmental group Trustees for Alaska.

Meyer’s advice for young people who want to help make a difference for animals is to “follow your passion, and to be bold about following your passion.” Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks receives many resumes each year, and what Meyer looks for as she reads through these documents is evidence of applicants who clearly demonstrate commitment to the causes they most care about. For Meyer, things like grades are far less important than volunteer work and involvement with grassroots issues and campaigns.

Katherine Meyer with Parker, her grand-dog. (photo by Eric Glitzenstein)

Katherine Meyer with Parker, her grand-dog. (photo by Eric Glitzenstein)

One of the most important guiding principles in Meyer’s professional and personal life is “one step at a time.” Every case is treated like a new opportunity to continue to chip away at the systemic and deeply entrenched ways that animals are abused and exploited in our contemporary world. At the same time, however, Meyer has a lot of institutional knowledge and frequently remembers “the genesis of many of these issues in animal law as well as how it evolved.” In the more than 27 years since she has been practicing animal law she has learned so much, and each of her cases is helping to reform dominant ideas about how animals should be treated. Her work has helped countless animals and we truly admire the tenacity and fortitude she brings to each and every one of her cases.