Alumni Q&A: Jeffrey Kerr '87 Fights on Behalf of Animal Rights as PETA General Counsel

December 28, 2011

As general counsel to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and its 10 international affiliates since 1994, Jeffrey Kerr '87 ensures that the organization's investigations of animal abuse are legal and oversees litigation efforts to stop cruelty to animals.

Jeffrey Kerr '87

With a reported 3 million members and supporters, PETA is the largest animal rights organization in the world and focuses its attention on four areas in which Kerr says animals suffer most: on factory farms, in the clothing trade, in laboratories and in the entertainment industry.

How did you become interested in the field of animal rights?

It was pure luck. I was attending a social justice lecture in March 1993, but the presenter got stuck in one of D.C.'s infamous beltway traffic jams, so his assistant filled in. She was an animal rights activist and the only lecture she had prepared on the spur of the moment was titled "Did Your Food Have a Face?" The nature and extent of the abuse inflicted on animals used for food, clothing, experimentation and so-called "entertainment," hit me right between the eyes, and I knew that I would never be the same. I went straight home and threw out every food item in my house that had any animal product in it and went vegan. I started looking for ways to work in animal rights and read everything I could get my hands on, especially Peter Singer's book "Animal Liberation." In August 1993, I answered a "help wanted" ad in The Washington Post for a staff attorney position at PETA, and I was on my way.

How did your experience at Virginia Law prepare you for your career?

My Virginia Law experience — including the balanced and well-rounded core curriculum, my litigation-focused concentration with the internal moot court competition, serving on the National Moot Court team and my extensive trial advocacy work — prepared me to take on anything I encountered in my career. Serving as general counsel to PETA and its affiliates requires knowledge of many areas of the law, the ability to react quickly and the dexterity to move between legal disciplines. I got that from day one at Virginia Law.

What are you most proud of in your work as a lawyer for PETA?

My greatest pride comes from working with the talented staff of PETA and its affiliates to expose and end animal abuse and in knowing that PETA's millions of members and supporters around the world entrust the organization with their donations to give a voice to those whose voices go unheard. Every day, our work is about doing something good and worthwhile to reduce animal suffering. Being an advocate for those who are truly in need is a point of pride for me, as it is the essence of what good lawyering is all about.

What are some of the legal challenges facing PETA moving forward?

We are challenged every day to expose animal abuse that the abusers try to keep hidden from public scrutiny. Since its founding 31 years ago, PETA has conducted nearly 300 undercover investigations that show the world the misery and suffering hidden behind the closed doors of factory farms, slaughterhouses, fur farms, laboratories, circuses and pet-trade dealers. Our video footage opens people's eyes to what they can do to help through the impact of their everyday choices — the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the products they buy.

A 1998 PETA undercover investigation in North Carolina made history, resulting in the first-ever felony indictments for cruelty to pigs by factory-farm workers, after PETA's investigator took hours of video footage that revealed shocking, systematic cruelty to animals, including daily beatings and bludgeoning of pregnant sows with a wrench and skinning pigs while they were completely conscious.

In another first, PETA's investigation in 2008 exposing factory farms for breeding animals owned by Aviagen Turkeys, Inc. — which calls itself "the world's premier poultry breeding company" — led to the first felony cruelty-to-animals charges in U.S. history against factory-farm employees for abusing birds.

One of the arguments constantly put forth by animal exploiters is that the instances of cruelty to animals captured during PETA's investigations are just isolated incidents by rogue employees, but PETA's 2008 investigation of an Iowa pig-breeding farm that supplies piglets to Hormel Foods, the makers of SPAM, proved that such abuse is found across the factory-farming industry, in locations and operations around the country. Just as in the North Carolina investigation, the investigator documented frequent beatings of pigs, many of whom were heavily pregnant, with weapons ranging from metal gate rods and herding canes to workers' fists. In what's considered "standard" in the pig meat industry, mother pigs were confined to "gestation crates" too small for them to take even a single step in any direction, and piglets suffered painful tail-docking and castration without anesthetics or pain relief.

Another major challenge is fighting animal abuse in countries with few laws to protect animals and virtually no enforcement of whatever laws do exist. For example, there are no regulations governing fur farms in China — farmers can house and slaughter animals however they see fit. PETA's undercover investigators found that many animals are still alive and struggling desperately when workers skin them, and many live up to 5 to 10 minutes after they are skinned. The only way to prevent such cruelty is never to wear any fur.

PETA has pursued a variety of strategies to protect animals over the years, some of them considered controversial. Recently you sued to protect orcas at SeaWorld under the 13th Amendment's prohibition on slavery. What is your argument?

PETA, a team of international orca experts, and two former orca trainers have sued SeaWorld, asking a federal court to declare that the five wild-caught orcas held and forced to perform by SeaWorld are being held as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment. This is the first case in our nation's history that seeks to extend constitutional rights that were once withheld from women, children and human slaves to living, breathing, feeling beings who happen not to have been born human.

Our lawsuit is based on the plain text of the 13th Amendment, which outlaws the condition of slavery in all forms. It does not reference any particular class of victims and does not refer to "person." Our lawsuit stands for the simple but powerful proposition that slavery does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on the gender, race or religion of the slave.

By any reasonable definition, these orcas are slaves for the following reasons:

  • They were torn from their homes and families with whom they would have lived their entire lives.
  • They are held captive in the equivalent of concrete bathtubs that cause them great stress and illness and make them aggressive.
  • They are denied everything that is natural and important to them.
  • They are forced to perform tricks for SeaWorld's profit.
  • They are turned into virtual breeding machines to churn out more performers for SeaWorld's shows.

The orcas, in their own right, deserve the same inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we hold dear. Denying them that freedom because of their species is the same kind of discrimination and prejudice required for any form of slavery. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, in commenting on this case, stated that the 13th Amendment was written broadly to address unforeseen circumstances and could legitimately be applied to animals. "People may well look back at this lawsuit and see in it a perceptive glimpse into a future of greater compassion for species other than our own," he said.

Does this mean that you believe common pets such as cats and dogs are enslaved by definition also?

The 13th Amendment case only challenges the exploitation and abuse of wild-caught animals used for fleeting human amusement at SeaWorld. Anyone who has the time and resources to get a companion animal should always adopt a dog or cat from a shelter and never buy from a breeder or pet store.

In what area of animal rights would you like to see the most progress in the coming years?

Animals deserve legal standing to challenge their enslavement and abuse at the hands of humans. The day will come, without doubt, whether next month, next year, or in the next decade, when animal advocates can sue in the name of the animals themselves to end discrimination and exploitation on the basis of species.

What do you want your legacy as a nonprofit lawyer to be?

What matters to me most is ending the legacy of violence and subjugation inflicted by humans on animals from arrogance, greed and self-interest. Each year, nearly 60 billion animals are killed for food in the U.S. alone; billions of animals, including monkeys, dogs, cats, mice and rats, are mutilated and tortured in wasteful experiments that have no relevance to humans; billions of minks, rabbits, dogs, cats, snakes, alligators and other animals are horrifically killed for a little fur trim, a pair of shoes or a handbag; and thousands of orcas, elephants, tigers and other animals are torn away from their families, denied everything that is natural and important to them, and forced to perform tricks for circuses and theme parks.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, as compassionate people are choosing a legacy of kindness for themselves and their children by going vegan, buying only humanely produced and sourced products, boycotting cruel forms of amusement, and swearing off fur and leather. This is the only legacy that matters.

What advice do you have for students interested in the field of animal law, or nonprofit law generally?

Animals need you desperately. The oppressed need you. The large corporations and banks don't need you. Don't fall into the money trap. Go somewhere that you can do the most good every day, not just once in a while on a pro bono matter. Money doesn't matter, not really. Follow your heart; follow your passion. Do what matters and what can really help animals and other oppressed groups. Help to make the world a better place. And as Frederick Douglass said, "Agitate, agitate, agitate." Safely maintaining the status quo never changed a thing!


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