On this episode, I will be talking once again with Will Lowrey, who is heading up the relatively new legal advocacy organization, Animal Partisan. We will be talking about a Freedom of Information Act request, which has just recently become a lawsuit, regarding the FBI and its relationship to animal agribusiness as well as its attitudes toward animal rights activists. There is a lot to uncover here, and Will is doing his best to get to the bottom of things. In addition to this case, we will be discussing the other types of work Animal Partisan has been taking on, especially, but not limited to, the potential role of private individuals and lawyers in getting cruelty laws better enforced on behalf of animals enmeshed in agriculture. It’s a fascinating, and, I think, ultimately hopeful conversation about possibilities that exist for lawyers to change the world for animals.
Will Lowrey is the founder and Legal Counsel for Animal Partisan, a legal advocacy organization focused on challenging unlawful conduct in animal agriculture and research. Prior to his current role, Will spent three years as Legal Counsel for Animal Outlook, a national nonprofit farmed animal protection organization, where he divided his time between civil litigation and undercover investigations. Will has engaged in numerous lawsuits and enforcement actions against the government and industrial agriculture, including cases involving administrative law, false advertising, public nuisance, and animal cruelty. Previously, Will clerked in the Superior Court of New Jersey and also taught the first Animal Law course at the University of St. Thomas School. Before law school, Will worked for nearly two decades as a process engineer at a large financial corporation and in his free time, helped run several non-profits focused on a variety of animal issues. Will currently resides in central Virginia where he helps operate a micro sanctuary for formerly farmed animals, and writes animal-related fiction novels.
- Animal Partisan website
- Animal Partisan on Instagram
- Animal Partisan on Facebook
- Animal Partisan on LinkedIn
- Farmed Animal Advocacy Clinic – Vermont Law
- Sorenson Law Office – FOIA Specialists
Mariann Sullivan: Welcome back to the Animal Law Podcast. Will
Will Lowrey: Thank you so much for having me. It's always good to be here.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, it's great to have you 'cause as you know, I love the work that you do. I find it fascinating and I thought today we would focus on a particular case. But in addition to that, I really wanna hear kind of the overall of what you're doing at Animal Partisan. Just start out by telling us a little bit about what Animal Partisan is, then we'll get into the case, and then we'll go into a little bit more of the overview.
Will Lowrey: Sure. Animal Partisan is a legal advocacy organization, so it's about just a little over a year old. I had started it after several years at a prior animal protection organization. Our scope is really isolated to animals in agriculture as well as animals in research. And the intent of Animal Partisan is really to take strategic, creative, and novel legal actions against those industries.
And we're trying to do it sort of with large impact and low resources. So we make lots of use of pro bono attorneys, law student interns, pro bono law students. And we're really looking for creative, novel, different avenues to challenge those industries. They may not always be the most glamorous, we may not be talking five, seven year litigations, but we're hoping to use the law, to use different creative avenues in the law, and have an impact to reduce animal suffering in agriculture and research.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I'm not sure what your idea of glamour is, but five to seven years litigations is not my idea of glamour, so I think that what you're doing is exciting and particularly good for pro bono attorneys who maybe don't have the resources to get involved in a huge case that's going to go on for seven years, but might be able to jump in and do something a little bit more specific.
I want to talk about those opportunities, but first I want to talk about this case, or... yeah, I guess it's a case now. I guess it was a matter, but now it's a case, regarding the FBI. Perhaps you could start off by telling us a little bit about the history of FBI involvement in animal rights activism.
Will Lowrey: Sure, I mean the history of involvement in animal rights activism obviously goes back a long time. You can go back, 20, 25 years and find reports of the FBI reporting out to Senate committees, calling animal rights one of the biggest domestic terrorist threats. You can go back even more recently, some of the DXE actions, but it's something that's been around for a while.
I mean, this is not anything new. I know decades ago, animal rights was lumped in with sort of environmental rights activism. There were concerns about the Animal Liberation Front and other groups, but this has continued. I mean, we see open rescues now, we see the FBI raiding sanctuaries, monitoring activists, and so it's something that's maybe changed forms, but it's been around for a considerable time.
You know, I was just reading something recently related to a conference this year from a state farm bureau where the FBI presented, and there was a quote from the agent that said that the FBI is laser focused on animal rights activism. So, it's not something that appears to be going away, and it's been around for quite a while, and I think it's important that the public and animal rights activists know what's happening.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I think it's really important because I don't think this is something most people would guess would be a big thing, but it is. And the matter we're talking about relates specifically to the FBI's relationship with NAMI. Can you explain what NAMI is and the history of its relationship with the FBI?
Will Lowrey: Yeah, so NAMI is the North American Meat Institute. It's one of, if not the largest, sort of trade association that looks out for the interest of meat producers in North America and the United States in particular. So I think about 90 plus percent of meat producers and individuals and businesses in that industry are part of the North American Meat Institute.
And so they have conferences very regularly, and the FBI, in the past, to our belief, has presented at these conferences. And so, the interest here was really, hey, we have this large agriculture industry body, and we have a potential connection with the FBI, would like to explore that more.
So NAMI itself is representing the meat industry, the FBI is obviously representing federal law enforcement. And so our interest in what is that connection? You know, it wasn't apparent at face value, but this case is really about exploring that.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, you found out about two specific conferences. I guess you've been keeping an eye on them. Can you tell us a little bit about how you found out the FBI had a role in them and basically what you know about this situation that made you want to find out more?
Will Lowrey: Sure, I can say a bit. I, I will hold a little bit of information, but I can tell you that NAMI has a recurring, I think it's an animal handling and welfare conference, which is interesting. And if you look at that, it's something that appears to happen once a year. I think during COVID periods, it happened on Zoom.
During other periods, it looks like Kansas City is the large destination for that conference. And it, you know, purports to talk about animal welfare and animal health, sort of under this guise of let's take care of the animals, let's make sure that the animals are healthy.
We received some information, I won't get into too many specifics, but we'll just say that we had reliable information that the FBI had attended and had some interaction in at least one of these conferences.
And that interaction, to our knowledge, was really related to discussing, planning, strategizing how to counter animal rights activism, and so that was the point of interest. As we know, the FBI is going to the agriculture industry. We know that they are talking about animal rights activists, and they are, to some extent, collaborating.
I don't know what the details of that are, and that's why we're after the documents, but, that was the initial point of interest, is what are these discussions, and the case kind of flowed from there.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, no, it is interesting too that at an animal handling and welfare conference, we're talking about animal rights activists. Doesn't seem like directly related, but one can imagine what they would be talking about.
Will Lowrey: Yeah, I mean, that's kind of the irony. I mean, if you look at the dichotomy of the two, I mean, we have a conference of people who profit off the suffering of animals to some extent, and we have a federal law enforcement agency that may be working to stop people that are interested in alleviating that suffering. That doesn't seem to mesh well with the premise of a humane handling conference, so a little bit of irony there.
Mariann Sullivan: All right, so this is what led you to the Freedom of Information Act. And I imagine almost everybody listening has at least heard about it. And you can kind of tell what it is even just from the title, but probably not everyone listening is familiar with how it works and with its specific provisions. So maybe we can get into that.
And first of all, I should point out, we're talking about the federal FOIA. A lot of states have it as well. So can you tell us, generally, how it works or how it is supposed to work? If you wanna make a freedom of information act claim? Is that what you would call it?
Will Lowrey: Sure. Yeah, and I think you make a good point. We are definitely talking about the Federal Freedom of Information Act versus any specific state act. And so, the Freedom of Information Act, you know, I was actually reading for another purpose about the history of that act, and it sort of arose in the 50s with the communist scare.
There was a California congressman that had been targeted by federal law enforcement officials, unjustly, and had dug and dug and pushed for over a decade to get this law passed. But it's really intended to give individuals insight into the workings of the federal government. And that here could include a very wide swath of government agencies and others.
And so we're talking about the FBI here, which obviously is a federal agency, a part of the Department of Justice. So, FOIA is a law that enables private citizens and entities to request records from the government, and it leans towards transparency. That is the purpose of FOIA is to provide transparency into the workings of the government.
So there are opportunities within each federal agency for individuals to submit a FOIA request and request certain documents. There are certain exemptions carved out in FOIA, and these are exemptions where the agencies do not need to give out documents, and they've been the subject of much debate and much litigation.
An individual can request documents. There's kind of a happy path where they get the documents, they get everything they want. The other path is they don't get the documents, and the government agency, you know, uses one of these exemptions and says, What you're asking for fits in one of these exemptions. I don't need to give you these documents.
And things can go different paths right there. I mean, obviously, a requester could stop and kind of go away. But if you want to continue to pursue those documents, you can appeal within the federal agency. We appealed to the FBI in this case. And if that does not succeed, you have the right to sue in a federal court.
In this case, we've sued in the District Court for the District of Columbia. So, those are the remedies. You can appeal, and then after you've exhausted your administrative remedies, you can sue and you can let a court decide whether that exemption applies.
Mariann Sullivan: So, getting back to the statute itself, I'd like to know what, you don't have to go through all of the exemptions, but if you can talk about what exemptions are relevant to our conversation here, and just give us an idea of what those are. And also, I forget the exact language. I think it might be reasonably segregable.
It's not like the agency can just say, well, there's a secret in there and so we're not giving you the entire thing. They are supposed to like, give you what they can, is that right?
Will Lowrey: Yes, and that's one of our positions here is that, you know, there was sort of just this default that, you know, everything you ask for fits in this exemption, which I'll talk about in just a moment. And there appeared to be no effort to segregate, to redact information. Obviously that would be too easy for an agency.
If I have a 500 page record and one sentence fits in an exemption, you know, it's, it's not right and it's not the purpose of FOIA that they can just say, no, the whole 500 pages you can't see. So Mariann, specific to your question, this case involves Exemption 7A, which is really a law enforcement exemption, and it talks about law enforcement records or it's basically talking about records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes.
And the text of the exemption says, but only to the extent that production of such law enforcement records or information. could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings. And so there's two key parts of that, and the first part is Is there a proceeding underway? That's kind of the threshold question.
Are we just talking about some generic information that has no bearing on any specific proceeding? Or is there an actual proceeding that's underway? And then your second inquiry really gets into, is there a harm? You know, would the release of this information harm that proceeding? So, this case is focused on 7A and there's really two parts to that exemption.
Mariann Sullivan: All right. So, actually the request covered three different areas, but correct me if I'm wrong. I think the lawsuit only involves one of them. Can you just give us an idea of what the original request asked for and tell us why, if I'm right, why you're only pursuing one of them in the lawsuit?
Will Lowrey: Yeah, you're right. The request in this case kind of narrowed down. There was actually a series of requests that was made to the FBI for different types of information related to Interactions between the FBI and certain agricultural entities, certain individuals, as well as this information about the conferences.
Those other requests, some of those are still outstanding, and then some of those were denied for other exemptions. But this one is the one where we feel like there's no legal grounds for this denial, so we felt like this was the strongest legal argument here. There was really no justification for the denial, so you are absolutely correct.
We started kind of, at a higher level, this case has funneled down to focus on these two specific conferences and this one specific exemption.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, and just to stay on that for a second, I just thought it was interesting the way you make requests. For people who aren't familiar with FOIA. You asked, I guess there were several particular agents who you thought might be involved in this work. And you said emails of several particular agents containing these words, agriculture, agricultural, animal rights, activists, those are separate words, Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, Alliance, meat, dairy, egg, or poultry.
I don't really have a question here. I think it's just interesting to anyone to see how a request would be worded. You just try to identify every word where something relevant to your interests might pop up. Is that correct?
Will Lowrey: Yeah, you have to be precise to some degree, and this is just based on my experience, but I also find that it somewhat varies depending on who's handling the request, what agency is it going to, and even differences between state and federal. In some cases, somebody might say, that's too broad of a request, we can't act on that.
And others, they may say, sure, we can go research that. And so, I found that the more precise you can be with request and give specific search criteria, one, it's gonna cut down on the time, it's gonna cut down on the back and forth where you're waiting weeks only to have the agency come back and say, too broad, I can't do anything with that.
Another consideration is cost. I mean, there can potentially be cost for FOIA request. At the federal level, there's obviously a waiver for the public interest, but if you're doing state requests, you know, you could incur a lot of cost if you're making a very broad request and requiring an agency to do a lot of work.
So my practice and experience has been the more precise you can get without limiting yourself, right? Without like being too precise that you avoid information that you otherwise would not have gotten. I think that's going to save you time and money in the long run.
Mariann Sullivan: All right. So let's get to the third request, which ended up being the subject of the lawsuit. What was their initial response? Oh, well, exactly what was your request? And then what was their initial response?
Will Lowrey: Sure, the initial request was somewhat broad, somewhat specific, but it was really records or information related to, and I don't have the exact words, but something to the effect of, the FBI's involvement in two specific conferences, one I think was in 2020, another in 2022, and it specified whether that involvement was as a presenter, consultant, or some other role.
So, that was the request, limited to two specific conferences, limited to the FBI's involvement, want records and documents, and then that could be FBI involvement in a number of roles. And the response that came back initially, and I think this was November of 2022, was that, There are no records available.
It was something to the effect of there are no responsive records, which, you know, obviously indicates that there is nothing like either this didn't happen, we don't have them. And so that was a little concerning, but that was the initial response,
Mariann Sullivan: And your information, probably pretty reliable information because it was not a super private event that your information was that there were definitely FBI speakers at these conferences. So there had to be something.
Will Lowrey: Right. And that was the response from our end was, basically, you might want to check again. It was that we have information that at least 1 of these conferences, there was FBI involvement, and that seemed to do the trick, because the next response to that request was basically the invocation of the exemption.
It was no longer a, we don't have anything, which is kind of changing course, but it was, you know, these are part of a law enforcement file, and that was kind of the stepping stone for the current litigation.
Mariann Sullivan: And I have to say, I was pretty impressed that you filed your second request, your follow up request, like, was it the same day you got the denial? It was very, very soon after. And can you talk a little bit about what timing is usually like with FOIA requests?
You really knew that was coming, didn't you?
Will Lowrey: Well, it's... I did. I followed it the same day. I mean, for me, I spent a long time in the corporate world as a process engineer, and it's important for me to get things out into the universe for people to react to and respond to, and there's not really a benefit for me to sit on that. Like, I knew what information we had, and I knew that there was a different response that I should expect.
So why sit a week or 2 weeks? I think this is important information. So, yeah, I responded right away, and response times vary. I think the initial response time for FOIA, if I'm not mistaken, for the initial request is about 21 days. But, you know, the follow up? It depends. I mean, I've had a request where you get into a follow up loop and you don't hear from someone for six months or a year and you have to keep following up on that, but this one I replied pretty quick and, you know, the FBI's response to their credit was pretty quick as well.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, no, everything happens so fast. I mean, when you're used to reading about lawsuits, that's pretty rare, so that was good. So, as you said, their response changed direction and, and talked about this law enforcement exception. And I know there, There's probably a limit to how much we can know about their full thought process in this, but can you tell us basically, what their response was and why you believe it's wrong?
Will Lowrey: The response was, there wasn't much to it, to be honest, and that's also a little bit concerning legally. I mean, the response was basically, you know, this is part of a law enforcement record. It honestly seemed kind of like a boilerplate response and then we appealed. So, as I mentioned earlier we did an administrative appeal.
File the formal appeal, and the response that time, came back a little bit more, but it wasn't much, and again, it seemed kind of like a boilerplate response, which was basically sort of just quoting the language of the exemptions, just this information is protected by FOIA Exemption 7a.
Disclosure could interfere with a law enforcement proceeding. There was not any detailed, you know, this is what it's about, or here's the documents, or anything like that. It was really, felt like a cut and paste into an appeal letter, which is, which is concerning.
Mariann Sullivan: And so what were your arguments on the administrative appeal? Specifically to this part, I know at that point you were still dealing with all three requests, but specifically as to this.
Will Lowrey: Yeah, I think if I recall the arguments, a big one was that this is information that we believe was shared publicly already. I mean, we're talking about the NAMI conferences, and we're talking about, presumably, there are hundreds, if not over a thousand people attending, and if you, for some reason are scared or unwilling to share that with us, then presumably, you shouldn't have shared it with all the people at that conference, so the two don't equate.
You can't say it's secret now, and it would interfere with the proceeding if you presented it already. I think we probably argued, to the point we discussed earlier, that there should have been redactions. I think those were probably the two big arguments in the appeal.
Mariann Sullivan: I noticed in the copy of your appeal, there are redactions, things that are crossed out names, you know, things that, it's not surprising, but I'm just wondering how did those redactions get in there? Do you put those in? Did they put them in?
Will Lowrey: If it's redactions in something that we sent over, it's probably something that we did. If it's something they sent back, it would have been something they did. I'm not sure which one specifically.
Mariann Sullivan: Okay. I was just curious. Yeah. I don't have a copy of the decision on the appeal, the administrative appeal. Was it just summary or was there any substance to it?
Will Lowrey: There was really no substance to it. I mean, if I recall, it was probably four or five paragraphs, you know, a page and a half letter, indicating that they've reviewed everything thoroughly, given it proper consideration, and at the end of the day, essentially just restated the exemption, that the exemption applies, disclosure of this would interfere with the law enforcement proceeding.
You know, you can read that letter over and over again. There's really no specific details that would lead you to believe that Gosh, I understand now, or this is what they're talking about, or this is the proceeding. That letter could have been sent to a hundred different replies. There's no specific details in there.
Mariann Sullivan: So that brings us, I assume that once you've done that administrative appeal, that exhausts your administrative remedies and you can proceed to a lawsuit?
Will Lowrey: So we've gone through the agency. We've gone through their processes. There's nowhere further within the FBI that we could have gone. And so, our approach then is judicial review.
Mariann Sullivan: It's a relatively simple process, really, assuming you can get timely responses, which of course you did here. All right, so that brings us to the lawsuit. You are actually not litigating this yourself. You're represented here. Can you tell us about that?
Will Lowrey: Yeah, I would be happy to. We are represented by two organizations. The first one is the Vermont Law and Graduate School Farmed Animal Advocacy Clinic, run by Laura Fox there. We've got a student, Andrea McMillan, that spent a lot of time on this case. And so, I think it's either the first or one of the first, you know, cases that they've taken on.
It's a new clinic doing great things. As an alma mater of that school, obviously happy to work with them. But we've been very, very happy with their support. The second attorney working for us is a gentleman named Pete Sorenson, who runs the Sorenson Law Office in Oregon. Pete is a seasoned FOIA litigator.
That's what he did. He's taken this case on pro bono. He's been a great resource for us. So, I feel very fortunate on behalf of Animal Partisan to have two excellent counsels on this case.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that is really great. And FOIA itself, you don't have to go to the Administrative Procedure Act or anything. It has its own citizen suit provision, right?
Will Lowrey: FOIA has a judicial review provision. I, I probably would be better off letting Pete answer. I think, you know, it's to some extent overlapping the APA, but in large part, I think we're relying on FOIA.
Mariann Sullivan: Okay. And just as a couple of interesting things I noted, I noted that the government seems to have the burden of proof, which is good. And there are attorney's fees recoverable in these actions, isn't there? So that's promising.
Will Lowrey: Yeah, there are. I think the language, if I'm not mistaken, is if you substantial prevail you can get attorney's fees. And so, yeah, that is a possibility and hopefully that serves as a bit of a deterrent for agencies out there from withholding, you know, to the extent that they know that they may be accountable for attorney's fees. But yes, that is on the table.
Mariann Sullivan: So at this point, the lawsuit is in very early stages, so there's not that much to talk about. But is there anything that you would characterize about your claim in the lawsuit that would add to what we all understand about what your claim is? We talked about the fact that it's limited to the third request and why you decided to do that.
What about the argument?
Will Lowrey: I mean, I've talked to some of the arguments, the ones made in the appeal, like the redaction we talked about. I think the, the sort of elephant in the room, the, how can you present to this organization, or NAMI, and then claim it's excluded. But I think, you know, diving into the specifics of 7A, there's additional arguments there and those are, what is the law enforcement proceeding? The FBI has never declared a specific law enforcement proceeding. It's not enough to say that this somehow vaguely relates to law enforcement. There must be a specific proceeding. We don't know what that is. The FBI has never asserted that. So obviously that's an argument to be raised.
And then, you know, the second sort of prong of the test I mentioned earlier, You can't really assess whether there will be harm to this proceeding if you don't know what the proceeding is. And so, we've not even gotten to that point, but I would say there's a lot of arguments. It's, you know, you can't share it publicly and now claim it's privileged.
You can't not send us unredacted information. You can't not identify a legal proceeding. So there's a lot of sort of legal arguments to be made. And that's why we're in court. I mean, it's the court's job to assess, you know, 7A and the cases. There's plenty of cases that dive into this exemption, whether the FBI has met the standard here or not.
We'll find out what this case.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, I'm really looking forward to hearing more. I know now that it's in court, everything will take a lot of time. It's not going to be any two day decisions on this. But, it's a fascinating case. And I don't know whether you can go into it, but I'm just curious, like, what do you want to do with this information?
Or what do you expect to be able to do with this information? Is it just, at this point, are you just, Gathering information and waiting to see, or do you have any specific goals?
Will Lowrey: To some extent, it's going to depend on the information that comes back. I don't know what it is specifically. At this point, definitely gathering information, you know, would love to see what's there and if there are certain strategies that the F B I is pursuing, where by chance they may be doing things that are legally questionable or involving other areas of the agriculture industry that, you know, would allow us to probe further.
I think it could lead to a lot of different paths. You know, is it gonna lead to further legal action? Is it gonna lead to just raised awareness? I think that's obviously a big part of it, is the average consumer purchasing animal products does not realize that the FBI is involved in this, that there are special agents spending hours and days and weeks digging into animal rights activists.
So, it really sort of depends, you know, obviously from an awareness perspective, but also, let's see what's there, and let's see what other legal avenues present themselves based on the information.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, exactly. Investigations are, you know, they don't, obviously, I mean, I'm the one who asked the question, but you don't know what the answer is before you're allowed to ask it. So, at this point, you want to ask some questions. Is there anything else you want to say about the case? Because as I mentioned in the beginning, I really would like to get into a little more about.
Animal partisans work more in general, not so much of a deep dive. But before we do that, is there anything I should have asked you about this that I didn't?
Will Lowrey: I think we've covered, like you said, it's early stages of the case, we've covered it. I just, you know, for all your listeners, especially law students, FOIA is a great tool, whether it's federal level or state level, you can get a lot of information. Obviously in agriculture, there are significant efforts made to sort of obscure things and prevent us from seeing.
So, I feel like sometimes we don't use FOIA enough. So, I love it as a tool and I think we should all use it. But as far as the case goes, I think we've covered it all.
Mariann Sullivan: God, I'm with you. It's an amazing law. Sometimes, you know, something's around for a long time and you forget what a miracle it is that it ever got passed and this is an amazing law. And, I kind of wonder whether their willingness to respond to your original request so summarily is based on the supposition that the animal rights movement has not had the resources to really go after things in the past.
And there are more resources available now, and you are obviously one of them. And they might be a little surprised by the fact that, you know, there are bulldogs out here who are willing to dig into things and keep going and you do have to keep going.
You can't just take their denial at face value.
Will Lowrey: I 200 percent agree with that. I mean, for me on principle, if I get a denial, even if the records may not be valuable, in the exact way that I think, you know, I think there is merit to challenging denials. Not in this case. I think these records are incredibly valuable, and I think the denial was completely improper, but I feel like there are so many FOIA requests at the state level and the federal level that it almost becomes the default to deny and assume that people will not pursue. They won't dig into the law, they won't appeal, they won't try to make an argument. And I think that's important. I mean, it's one thing to send a request, but if there's an appeal, spend a little bit of time. I mean, this is the beauty of, you know, pro bono attorneys and law students.
These are great cases for people to explore and research and see if there's a legal argument. And in many cases, you alluded to this earlier, the administrative appeal before the lawsuit is a pretty low overhead ask. I mean, you're generally talking, writing a letter, getting on a web form, submitting a request.
And so, I think on principle, if you feel like you've been denied improperly and you have the time to spend, I think it's worth digging around.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't agree more. All right, let's talk a little bit more about Animal Partisan's work in general. And, you know, I've spoken to you before, and we did go through this to some extent, but you've done a lot more since then. I mean, and that was before you started Animal Partisan, but we were talking about your eagerness to look into Cruelty law and not just take the old school idea that, oh, it's a criminal law.
There's nothing we can do, but realize there's lots of stuff you can do. Some of it's hard. Some of it takes a lot of digging, but there is stuff you can do. And a lot of what you've done so far, since founding Animal Partisan, is cruelty complaints. So how are you pursuing that? Last time we talked about Pennsylvania as a particularly interesting provision.
And I noticed a lot of your work still is in Pennsylvania, but you have done some work in other states as well. Can you just give us kind of the overview of how all
Will Lowrey: Absolutely, yeah, I would say pursuing the enforcement of cruelty laws for animals in agriculture is one of the main areas of focus for Animal Partisan. And it's for the reasons that you said. I think a lot of people dismiss these laws and say, oh, we've got exemptions, nobody's going to care. But that's not always the case, and there are avenues to pursue.
Right now we're pursuing getting those laws to apply to animals in agriculture through a number of different fronts. You know, one of those is obviously the private criminal complaints that you mentioned. And the short version of these is If you go to a prosecutor in most states and say, you know, this cow or this turkey or this pig has been beaten and abused, nine out of ten times you're going to get a decline for one reason or the other.
They're going to say, I'm not going to prosecute, you don't have the evidence or the USDA handles this. These private complaint avenues are sort of an alternative path for individuals to try to get a judge or a magistrate or even in some cases a grand jury to look at those cases and to get a second set of eyes.
So, Animal Partisan has done a bunch of those. We've got a couple of trials scheduled actually in October and November in Pennsylvania, one is a turkey company, one is a pork company. We filed a complaint in Wisconsin for a slaughterhouse breaking the tail of a steer, forcing that Steer into a slaughter shoot, you know, that's in collaboration with Animal Equality, as is some of our other work. I filed a complaint in Alaska, you know, and have others lined up. And so for me, to some extent, it's about pursuing individual cases that I believe have merit based on the law of those specific states, but I think at a broader level, you know, there's the value of normalizing these cases and saying these cruelty laws really do apply to these animals. So, there's that as well. And then, I would say secondly and lastly on this, I would mention we have a petition into the United States Department of Agriculture.
An administrative rulemaking petition, and that is essentially asking the USDA to take a position, and issue a policy statement saying that the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, they don't supersede and engulf all state cruelty laws, and state officials can still enforce those.
So, to some extent, the private complaints and that policy request are working together. We have some other litigation activities in play, but I think there's a lot of opportunities to go after, getting these laws to apply to farmed animals.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I thought that petition in the USDA was really, really interesting. And because I wasn't aware, I think that, that when you have brought things to prosecutors, local prosecutors, you have gotten so much of that response. That, oh, we can't do this. This is the USDA's job, which we all know that's not true.
I mean, I know that and I'm not a prosecutor, but apparently that you get that a
Will Lowrey: Yeah, and it's not just me I mean the petition calls out examples from other groups, you know, Animal Equality, PETA, Animal Outlook And so I think a lot of us are getting these responses and it's sort of just the knee jerk you know, if you're a prosecutor in, say, a rural area that has a factory farm or a slaughterhouse and you get something farmed animal related, I think a lot of folks just default to, this isn't us, this must be the United States Department of Agriculture.
and I've had so many arguments, I remember one in North Carolina with a magistrate about this. Was pointing to the law. I mean, there's a Supreme Court case, National Meat Association versus Harris that specifically says that states can still enforce their own cruelty laws. They're not all preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. But whether it's an easy out or an out because people just don't understand the law and don't want to research it, or because they don't care enough about farmed animals to want to dig any deeper, it's something that happens over and over and over again, and we're hoping that the USDA can help remedy that.
We're not asking the USDA to do anything different, just clarify.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. I think it's fascinating. And I think it really, with this issue, everybody wants to look the other way and pretend it's not their problem, whether it's consumers or law enforcement or, and I'm not sure exactly. What is the mindset, but it's bad. I'm really glad that you're shining a light on it.
You also, you have one consumer protection act, consumer protection law case. Is that right? Are you also pursuing that? Or is that just something that, that happened in your main focus is these cruelty complaints?
Will Lowrey: We did file that. I would say the main focus is the cruelty complaints, but that doesn't mean that we're not pursuing other areas. We try to use an administrative process in the District of Columbia to challenge the American Humane Association. That's another one where it was largely ignored by the DC agency, even though, you know, I would stand here to my dying day and argue that the law applies and they could do something about it.
So, a lot of what we're doing is exploring novel paths, and it's not just novelty for the sake of novelty. You know, let's find different ways to challenge the industry and potentially create repeatable causes of action that could be used over and over and over again. So, private complaints are a part of it, but we've done consumer stuff.
You know, we had a complaint to the Office of the Inspector General of the USDA, sort of a different administrative route that resulted in some things. We've got a lot of cool litigation ideas being developed that touch on completely different areas of the law. So, I'm open to exploring it all. If it's, if it's worth the effort, it can possibly help animals, and it could potentially be something repeatable that not just animal partisan, but others could use.
I think it's worth exploration.
Mariann Sullivan: I should have asked this before, because I want to follow up on what you just said, but I also want to just go back to the cruelty complaints. A lot of it, you know, it's very, very focused on particular state statutory law, isn't it? Like, finding a way in, because as we all know, cruelty laws are criminal laws, and criminal cases are brought by DAs, and you know that used to be the end of the conversation, but you have found that there are specific statutes in various states, which have to be researched on a state by state basis, because they're not necessarily the same, that kind of allow you one way in.
Is that right?
Will Lowrey: Absolutely right. So, I don't know the exact number. I would say it's probably over 20, probably approaching half the states that have some sort of procedure where you can do this, and some states have multiple procedures, and the procedures vary. In some cases, you know, you can go to a district attorney, and if they deny you, you get a right of appeal, like Pennsylvania.
In other states, like Virginia, where I'm at, you can go to a lower level judicial official, a magistrate, who usually does search warrants and weddings and that sort of stuff. In other states like New Jersey, you can get to a municipal court judge. States like Tennessee, you can get to a grand jury. Certain states you can appoint a private prosecutor.
New Hampshire would be an example of those. So it really does vary, and to your point, it's state by state specific. In many cases, there's not a lot of law about them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist and that they may not be worth a try to help animals.
Mariann Sullivan: I know when I've looked at New York's, which is the only one I've looked at, like there'll be particularly in the cruelty code, though, I guess it's possible there would also be, be more general avenues that aren't just specific to animal cruelty, but it's just so interesting how frequently they have absolutely no cases cited under them.
They've never, apparently never been used, at least not in a reported case. And yet these laws, there must have been a perception at the time cruelty laws were passed from some legislators that there needed to be extra avenues by which these laws could be enforced. I think it's just so interesting and those laws are out there.
Will Lowrey: Yeah, they are, and I will say it's kind of a mix. I mean, I would say there are definitely a few states that have laws that are animal specific. You know, California comes to mind, Minnesota comes to mind, you can, you know, petition a judge in Minnesota, and I, it's a good point, I should have clarified.
Many of these states are not animal specific, so when I'm talking Pennsylvania, if you look at the case law for that statute, a lot of those cases are related to police abuse, and just, you know, police, you know, inappropriate conduct, people being shot, relatives bringing cases, and, you know, other cases, other states, there are procedures that just generally exist for citizen disputes.
In New Jersey, if you've got a neighbor, you know, doing mischief on your property, you could bring the case. So, there are definitely some that are animal specific, but I would say in general, they are just out there for citizens who may not be satisfied with the resolution of the criminal justice system.
And a lot of it, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on the history, but a lot of it goes way, way back in history where citizens had a right to pursue remedies, and some states have upheld this and said, you It is important to allow a citizen to pursue a grievance against them, and so, yeah, many of them are actually not animal specific.
Mariann Sullivan: Fascinating. There's so much work to be done here. So, you talked a little bit about, you know, wanting to expand this and get replicable cases that then have repeated decisions. So, what's the global theory of change here? Do you just, I mean, each of these cases is obviously really important, but not going to change the system.
But do you see, if the ability builds to bring a lot of these cases, it's going to be kind of a thousand cuts that actually is going to make systemic change.
Will Lowrey: Yeah, I certainly think that that's part of it. I mean, obviously just every case on its own has merit. I mean, I wouldn't bring a case, you know, just for the larger picture I mean the cases that we're bringing all have individual merit and we believe that the laws were broken. But I think there is a larger picture here and part of it is like I said Normalizing that cruelty laws really can apply to animals used in agriculture. I think people are used to the horrible cruelty cases with dogs and cats, but It's not often you see something in the news about, you know, pigs were beaten, or the cow had his tail broken, or the steer had his tail broken rather.
So, you know, I think to some extent, normalizing it with these cases and getting courts to say this is indeed cruelty regardless of the animal species, I think that's a part of it. I think there's also normalizing for law enforcement and district attorneys as well. I've had a lot of conversations that didn't lead to the outcome I wanted, but I could tell that they were informative, educational, with magistrates and district attorneys who had never thought of these issues before.
And so I think getting these cases before them is helpful as well. And then, yeah, like I said, you know, the, well, the third part I would say is if one of these cases is brought and it's for a common agricultural practice, like, for example, the Animal Outlook Martin Farms case we talked about previously, where cows were being pushed with forklifts and the disbudding was done improperly.
Even though that's one individual case, that can, to some extent, send a message to the agriculture industry that these practices that are being done over and over and over again are cruel and they could result in criminal punishment. So, I think there's a lot of benefits. There's obviously the individual case.
There's the education, the normalization, and the sort of sending a message to the industry that the things that you're doing could constitute a crime. So, I see a lot of value in them.
Mariann Sullivan: I see enormous amount of value and a way where lawyers can really make an enormous difference. And, you do have on your website, you talk about opportunities for practicing attorneys and internships, for, I guess, law students or, or maybe for practicing attorneys as well. So can you tell us a bit about like how that works now and what your dream is of this worldwide Animal Partisan cadre of lawyers?
I don't know whether you have that dream. I just, made that up.
Will Lowrey: Sure, absolutely. So to me, it's kind of a logical marriage. I mean, there is no end of opportunities to explore the law for ways to help animals. Like, the legal system is vast. We've just talked about so many obscure statutes that require research and writing to find them. And there are many, many others in completely different areas of the law.
So we have that on one hand. And then on the other hand, we have a whole bunch of people, whether they are Law students or attorneys working in other fields or even undergraduate students or master's students who just want to help animals and they want to get involved some way, shape, or form. And so for me, this is about marrying those two and saying, okay, great.
We can get people experience, we can sort of kindle that passion, and at the same time, we can get very valuable work done researching different legal theories that could be used to help animals. I would say right now, Animal Partisan, we have Three interns, we're engaged with about six different law school pro bono groups that constitute about 20 plus students.
We've got about seven pro bono attorneys, so probably about 30. And then I've got an undergraduate student and a master's student, so we probably have about 30 pro bono resources, whether they're students or attorneys, working on developing legal theories. Generally always open for more. I'd say right at the moment we're a bit full, but, you know, people can check out the website, and if they are interested can certainly send an email, and I will try my best to find projects.
You know, for me, it's kind of a win win. It's, I want to kindle that passion. If we had an army of 10, 000 animal law attorneys, I think the world would be a better place. And at the same time, we can actually get some good work done exploring opportunities to bring legal challenges.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I think it's a very exciting theory of change and bringing, and, you know, as I said, it's giving opportunities for lawyers and sometimes it's really hard to know what those opportunities are for people who are in private practice and want to do something. But like I said before, maybe taking on Five to seven year, very complex case under the Endangered Species Act is really not in the cards.
This is something that, that people can get a grasp on. If somebody who worked for a firm wanted to take on a case, heard of something locally, wanted to do the research, came up with a case, like, would they represent you? I mean, are you're a not for profit, like in, in their law firm, they might be required to be representing a not for profit.
Is that how you see things working?
Will Lowrey: I would absolutely, well, it depends. I mean, that could be one avenue. So, if Animal Partisan was a specific plaintiff and the facts aligned and they were standing, then that may work. I am. I'm always open to sharing ideas with other groups and have done so as well. I mean, if there's a theory and I don't have the facts or I don't have the standing, but I know somebody that might, then that's information that I would gladly share to another group.
It just, it really depends on sort of the factual situation, what AP's involvement is or has been, does the case fit within the scope, but I would say there's lots of different actions. I mean, animal partisan is in some cases acting as counsel, some cases acting as plaintiff. I think we have some flexibility to work.
It really just depends on the specifics.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, I think there are going to be lots and lots of opportunities, so I hope anybody who's interested, will be in contact with you. Just tell us where.
Will Lowrey: Sure. You can go to the animal partisan website, it's animalpartisan.org. Or you can email email@example.com and it will get to the right place.
Mariann Sullivan: Excellent, excellent. I love that name too, Animal Partisan. It's just a great name. Thank you so much for joining us today, Will. This has really been very informative.
Will Lowrey: Thank you for everything you do and for having us once again. I really appreciate it.
This episode of the Animal Law Podcast is sponsored in part by the Vermont Law & Graduate School’s Animal Law and Policy Institute.
Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Animal Law and Policy Institute trains tomorrow’s animal advocacy leaders to advance animals’ legal status through education, scholarship, policy development, community engagement, and litigation. Engaging with advocacy organizations, communities, journalists, and policymakers, the Institute serves as a resource hub for animal law and policy issues.
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