The national headquarters for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) resides in a small office building on East Cotati Avenue. Unassuming from the outside, this non-profit organization has received national recognition for their work in protecting the lives and advancing the interests of animals through the legal system and their efforts have made a huge impact in changing legislation harmful to animals.
This certainly wasn’t a childhood dream of Stephen Wells, Executive Director of ALDF. Growing up in Chicago, he initially thought he would spend the rest of his life there and started a successful business at a young age, repairing and calibrating industrial measuring equipment. However, by his mid twenties he discovered he had a real passion for the outdoors, so he decided to sell his business and leave the city, not quite knowing what his next venture would be.
He traveled to Alaska, and happened to be there during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. While helping in clean up efforts, he had a transformative experience and realized he wanted to focus his life on working for positive change for the environment and wildlife.
“I was horrified when I was out on the spill,” Wells said. “You’re out on this beautiful, magnificent place and then you see the oil and dead animals and the stench everywhere. Everywhere you went it smelled like crude oil. It was a real wake-up call for me, that there really aren’t any places immune from the impact of civilization and our appetite for oil and things. That was a big factor that changed the path of my life. I left that experience realizing that I needed to become involved in part of the solution.”
Wells started volunteering for the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a non-profit wilderness protection agency and started another business, this time in construction, in Anchorage. Eventually he was hired full-time at the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and with his prior business experience worked his way up to being Executive Director of the organization. He worked for nine years protecting Alaska’s environment and wildlife, particularly wolves and bears. As Executive Director, he grew the organization by more than doubling its staff and level of activism. He successfully led a ballot initiative banning “same-day airborne wolf hunting” which allowed the use of airplanes to kill wolves.
After almost a decade in Alaska, Wells decided to start an animal sanctuary in California. However, after he arrived in California the plans were derailed and he started a vegan restaurant in Guerneville called “Sparks,” which also included a highly successful retailing market of packaged goods sold across the Bay Area. In 1999 he obtained the Director of Education position with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit founded in 1979 by attorneys active in shaping the emerging field of animal law. The organization worked for stronger enforcement of anti-cruelty laws and more humane treatment of animals by people and businesses.
Within six months of working for ALDF, Wells realized there was a great opportunity to expand into law schools and involve attorneys directly. He developed the program, which grew tremendously and has materialized into a huge pro-bono network as well. Today there is a student chapter in about 220 law schools – almost every accredited law school in the United States, as well as some in Canada and one in New Zealand. When Wells started there were 12 animal law classes offered in the United States and Canada. There are more than 140 today.
“We’re seeing a real incredible shift in the past 15 years or so with virtually every significant law school now teaching animal law classes,” says Wells. “The field of law called animal law really didn’t exist before the Animal Legal Defense Fund.”
In 2006 Wells became Executive Director of ALDF. Under his leadership the organization greatly increased its reach to achieve its mission. The pro bono program now has $1.2 million in donated legal services. He raised significant funds to create the ALDF Fellowship program and helps ALDF fund an expanding vision for the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, and he created an in-house litigation program that allowed ALDF to quadruple its caseload, also increasing the staff from 16 in 2006 to 55 nationwide today. When he first joined the organization, ALDF’s revenues were at $3.7 million. By 2011, they reached $5.7 million despite the immense economic recession. The organization now has offices in Los Angeles and Portland.
“We fill a very unique niche,” says Wells. “Obviously, there are many national animal protection organizations and there is certainly an overlap in the issues we focus on, but we are unique in our exclusive focus on the law. The work that we’re doing in law schools, our development of the law itself through our litigation and legislative work, and the work we do in the criminal justice system, really defines the difference.”
85 percent of ALDF’s funding comes from individual donations across the country, including contributions through wills and estates. The rest comes from private grants from various foundations and a small amount from awards from court cases in which the defendant has to pay fees. They receive no corporate or government funding.
ALDF files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm, provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors handling animal cruelty cases, supports tough animal protection legislation and fights legislation harmful to animals.
The organization recently celebrated two big wins. The first involved the U.S. District Court of Utah declaring the Ag-Gag statute unconstitutional. Ag-Gag laws criminalize undercover investigations by animal activists and journalists at factory farms and slaughterhouses and, according to Wells, are “flagrant attempts to hide animal cruelty from the American people and they unfairly target activists trying to serve the public’s interest.” ALDF worked for four years in this lawsuit against the state of Utah, and just heard last week that the state is not going to appeal the decision. In addition, they previously won a similar case against the state of Idaho.
“We’re very proud that we were able to represent interests that included not just the animals that were horrifically treated and were our primary concern.” says Wells. “In Idaho for example, our coalition included the ACLU, a Latino Worker’s Rights group based in the state, and also journalist groups that joined our lawsuit because this was a very scary attack on whistleblowing and investigative journalism and exposing the truth.”
The second win involved a lawsuit ALDF filed against Houston’s Downtown Aquarium owned by Landry’s Inc., for violations of the federal Endangered Species Act due to the treatment of four tigers. The tigers are kept in substandard conditions at the aquarium, being housed in a few hundred square feet indoors for more than 13 years without adequate access to sunlight, fresh air or natural surfaces. ALDF first served Landry’s with a notice of intent to sue, offering to forego the lawsuit if the company accepted the group’s offer to rehome the tigers to a reputable sanctuary at no cost to Landry’s. Instead, the company filed its own lawsuit claiming the Animal Legal Defense Fund defamed Landry’s by publicly commenting on the long-controversial mistreatment of the tigers. However, ALDF obtained a dismissal of that suit, and an award of more than $600,000 in sanctions and attorneys’ fees against Landry’s.
“Our primary focus is on how we can advance the law for animals,” says Wells. “The reality is that the root problem for animals under the law is that laws still consider them things, property, as opposed to living, sentient beings. That property classification just no longer fits, and we know that scientifically and ethically. Even intuitively most of us are aware that animals are quite sentient. The more we learn about them the more we know how complex and intelligent and social they are and our laws just haven’t kept up.”
Thankfully Stephen Wells and the ALDF is working hard to have our laws reflect our society’s feelings about animal welfare.