Today, Portland, OR-based attorney Natasha Dolezal explains how her journey into animal law has found its footing in Kenya.
Animal Lawyers Without Borders: Why I Followed My Heart and My Name to Kenya for Animals
Haraka, haraka, haina Baraka.
When in Africa, sooner or later you’re sure to hear this Swahili proverb softly uttered by a friendly face. Loosely translated, it means, “Hurry, hurry, has no blessings.” In other words, “Easy people, no reason to rush – there are no blessings in getting there faster, so just slooooww down and enjoy.”
As one born with the gift of impatience, this is not my favorite little nugget of wisdom. But, in spite of our different paces, I always knew that one day I would go to Kenya. As a child, my favorite stuffed animal was an elephant named “Tasha,” with whom I felt a deep affinity because of her name – which made me think that my name, Natasha, might fit somewhere, even if not in my tiny Illinois hometown. Since, naturally, I thought this place would be bursting with elephants, I soon discovered, through repeated viewings of Born Free, that that place was Kenya. As I grew up, I discovered there were far more reasons than my namesake to actually hurry, hurry to Kenya.
I know I’m not alone, right? Elephants. Giraffes. Wildebeests. Not to mention Elsa and her descendants.
At twenty-one, I finally saw my first elephant in the wild in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
This was after a circuitous route that began in Henry County, Illinois (“The Hog Capital of the World” – no joke). There, a 4-H kid, I had horses as neighbors; my beloved quarter horse, Dusty Jo Midnight, as my best friend; and plenty of dogs and cats as favorite companions. I loved animals, and, like most animal loving children, I assumed my path to caring and protecting them would be wearing a white coat.
Then, by the time I began junior high, after moving to Portland, Oregon, I became aware – how or why is unclear – that animals needed me for more than just medical care. I began sporting my “Against Animal Testing” shirt as often as hygienically appropriate. Yet still, I remained steadfast on the road paved by science and biology, since I was unsure what else I could do to help animals. Law was nowhere in sight, not even a signpost…
“You want to help animals? Go to law school, and then come back here to Kenya.”
Luckily, I decided to study wildlife management and conservation, which eventually landed me in Kenya on a foreign study program. One day, after a long day in the field, and as I sipped a cup of chai, my professor dropped this bomb.
Seriously? Law school?
By the light of our headlamps, we discussed ways to approach the problems facing both the animals and the communities we’d seen hours earlier. The issues were complex – people living in communities that had to compete with animals to meet basic needs in a country lacking the legal structure and capacity to protect animals regardless of the suggestions of smart science. I remember walking back to my tent in the dark (literally and figuratively), feeling a bit dismayed and stunned that a scientist had just told me to head to law school to help him help animals.
For the next few years, I dug in, reluctant to change my trajectory. I spent time working for veterinarians and doing more conservation research, until one day I found myself back in Portland. I took it as a sign that my city happened to be home to the most established animal law education program in the US – Lewis & Clark Law School. I graduated and practiced “regular” law for six years, all the while maintaining the faith that when the time was right, my path would head back to Kenya. Eventually, I knew that that path would come full circle, but I was losing patience. Haraka haraka haina Baraka.
Then, in 2012, I found myself directing the brand new Animal Law LL.M. program at Lewis & Clark’s Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS). A few months later, I sat in the office of Professor Kathy Hessler, and we began our first hesitant conversations about exploring possibilities for our students to work on projects in Africa. And, just like that, I was back in Kenya with Kathy to begin planning to develop a class for our law students and lawyers to assist in Kenya’s efforts related to animals.
The first animal law course offered in Africa.
From that modest trip last year, the Kenya Legal Project was born. I’ve since returned to Kenya as a participant in the first National Judicial Dialogue, and was inspired to see the commitment and dedication from the judiciary, law enforcement, and conservationists. This May, I will be back with those individuals selected to participate in the Kenya Legal Project. Our three-week summer course will provide participants with exposure to the legal obstacles facing Kenya’s animals, and opportunities for collaboration with local stakeholders. We will see the elephants that inspire, visit Nairobi National Park to witness urban/wildlife conflicts, assist a local nonprofit in a de-snaring mission aimed at combating bush meat poaching, and learn from the experiences of the folks at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is home to a great ape sanctuary and the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.
Animal lawyers without borders.
I am hoping for a multiplier effect. Africa’s poaching crisis is at a fever pitch – a fact not lost on even the average person. Animal lawyers, both in the United States and internationally, need to face this together. The animals do not have the luxury of relocating to the country that will provide them the highest standard of living or legal protections. As many countries are contributing to this crisis, we must collaborate and share openly our collective animal law experience (successes and failures) – not only with Kenya, but with the rest of Africa – to encourage the field of animal law to grow and flourish throughout the continent. I feel fortunate to be a part of this effort, and privileged to share with interested law students and attorneys my experience in hopes that it inspires them to trust their own wayward path and consider going out of bounds.
On each visit back to Kenya, I am invariably asked, “Are you Maasai?” While this may strike some as strange, it is merely a testament to my not-so-strange-after-all name, which, it turns out, means “connected or joined,” or, according to others, “a double blessing,” in Maasai. Well, whatever the meaning, I am deeply connected to Kenya – the animals and the people. And, I feel doubly blessed that my path was wide enough to include my passion and profession.
Natasha Dolezal is the Director of the world’s first and only Animal Law LL.M. program at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. She also teaches the legislative and lobbying course for the National Animal Law Competition. Natasha began her legal career in the Oregon Legislature as a senator’s legislative assistant and then transitioned to a position as a Deputy District Attorney prosecuting felony and misdemeanor crimes, including animal abuse cases. Natasha’s interest in animal law began while studying wildlife conservation in Kenya, performing conservation genetics research on various species of birds, and training, and caring for assistance dogs at a large nonprofit. She is passionate about music, and, so – naturally – is learning to play the piano for her two dogs.