Sunday, April 21, 2013

Interview: Animal Attorney Christine Garcia

With Earth Day approaching—check out The Miami Herald's recent article about how being vegan contributes to the well-being of the planet—I thought it'd be great to check in with someone who's dedicated her entire life to the well-being of animals.

Fortunately, attorney Christine Garcia of The Animal Law Office in San Francisco was able to answer a few questions about her work. Please share her story with others—especially with young people who might be considering where to direct their life's energies!

New Vegan Age: Tell us about yourself and how you came to study and practice animal law. Was there a formative experience with animals in your childhood, teen, or early working years?

Christine Garcia: Absolutely. I always have loved animals from a very early age. At the age of ten I remember seeing a veal commercial put on by the HSUS and dialed the 800 number to receive animal welfare mail. Of course I had my parents write checks on my behalf, and before you knew it, I was on everybody's mailing list. That's where the seed was planted.

The real turning point was when I was Court Ordered by Commissioner Bloom in the Hayward Superior Court to specifically do 80 hours of community service with an animal shelter for a speeding ticket of mine. I picked the San Francisco Animal Care and Control ("ACC") because I heard that the SPCA usually gets all the volunteers when the ACC animals need help just as much, if not more.

This is actually a long story, but needless to say, I was exposed to the day-to-day animal cruelty issues in our city, and one case of dog fighting in particular turned me into an activist. I always thought somebody was doing something about animal cruelty and was enraged to hear that this dog fighter completely got off.

At that point, I became more active and starting applying to the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission and began taking pro bono cases as well. You can read more on my website.

NVA: What kinds of cases do you work on? Criminal? Civil? How do they come to your attention, and how do you choose which ones to accept? 

CG: Yes, I do civil and a very limited and specialized amount of criminal, and I work in both the federal and state Courts. People somehow find me either on the Internet with a simple search or by referrals.

I take a myriad of Animal Law cases. Currently, my case load consists of:

  • Dog defense cases (administrative level, appeals and writs)
  • Representation of vegan businesses
  • Incorporating vegan or animal welfare non-profits
  • Representing vegan animal rights activists in litigation/grand juries
  • Suing companies and individuals with a practice of animal cruelty or gross negligence towards animals
  • Consulting other attorneys or individuals for animal law cases
  • Custody disputes over animals
  • Campaigning to end animal cruelty
You can find out more about the types of cases I take here.

NVA: It's safe to assume your work impacts the relationships between people and animals. Can you identify some examples of outcomes where it has successfully done so?

CG: It's funny, but although my work impacts both, I primarily focus on the impact for the animal, and I let my client know that. I explain what their rights are and then what is best for their animal, and sometimes that is not in alignment with what the client would like to do. I often have to explain to a client that although they can sue for certain reasons, it would not be beneficial for their animal who can be set free from incarceration with a settlement instead of waiting in shelter custody while the client fights for their case.

Usually my wins are very one-sided...In other words, I will win and this makes my client happy. It is rare that I win and my opposition is also happy. The opposition in my case usually wants a dog dead or is fighting to protect animal testing. When I win, it means they did not get their way. So the relationship between the animal caretaker and animal is nourished, but the relationship between my adversary and animals unfortunately becomes more disparate.

NVA: I also imagine your work impacts people's relationships with themselves, as well as with each other. Are there broad themes through your career that help illustrate this?

CG: Yes. I usually find that there is always a complaining party who is usually a neighbor, an ex, or a landlord who for some reason has a gripe with another person, and instead of taking it out with that individual, or a therapist, they take it out on the animal and either pursue euthanasia, or straight-out poisoning. Then you have my opposing counsel who, despite the fact that he or she sees that the animal is undeserving of death, digs in their heels merely out of ego and wants to win...losing sight of what he or she is even fighting over.

So I see a lot of people who are so wrapped up into fighting or ego or "power trips" or personal issues, and sadly are not pausing to see that an innocent life is at stake. It's very
frustrating to deal with repeatedly. And it doesn't shock me anymore.

NVA: What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?

CG: The obvious great joy and success of my work is each and every time that I know that an animal is alive and happy and back at home (or safe in a sanctuary) because I stepped in. It's also refreshing and exciting when a Judge has the courage to apply the law properly and make rulings for the welfare of animals.

NVA: What have been some of the saddest setbacks/challenges?

CG: I think one of my saddest setbacks was losing Lucy, a very sweet family dog in Sunnyvale who was a model dog. She was also a pit bull dog, which meant she had a lot of bias against her. She was actually used to train other dogs who had poor behavioral issues, and she did so successfully.

She was loyal and gentle with children. A neighbor dog used to harass her human brother (3 years old) and one day Lucy accidentally got out when that harassing dog happened to come barking from around the corner. Needless to say, Lucy snapped the dog's neck and she was incarcerated and put to death for that reason. It was heartbreaking. That was about six years ago.

Other challenges include what I describe above, when I need to deal with an opposition (always an attorney) who is not able to see past his or her own ego. I wonder how some of them can sleep at night doing what they do. I wonder if they have a conscience or if they just turn it off when they walk into Court. It makes me feel like I am on a planet with people lacking empathy and compassion. It's hard constantly working against attorneys with this profile.

NVA: What would you tell a young person who's considering a career in animal law?

CG: Wow. We certainly need the help. The animals need the help. There are plenty of people and attorneys out there helping people, but animals are the #1 most exploited being on the planet. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of work in this field. I wish I could retire, but animal exploitation continues daily. Please feel free to call me for encouragement.

NVA: Is there anything else about your life and work that you'd like to share, that we didn't already cover? What's next for you?

CG: I would love to have a sanctuary! I would love to have one off the 1 Hwy on the Coast near the San Francisco Bay Area. I think it would be great to see some happy animals. I hear a lot of very sad stories every day, and I think it would be great to have a place where animals can be happy again. But it won't be for a while. I am always training new attorneys for free to practice animal law since we need more of us out there. I am also happy to share my briefs with people who need help.

Also, people often get to me after the fact, and it would be great if more people knew their rights and what to do ahead of time. For that reason, I encourage people to read the Frequently Asked Questions—especially the third one—on my website.

NVA: How can people learn more about you and your work? What do you suggest readers do if they encounter a situation where animal law might be needed?

CG: You can read more about me here, and some of my articles can be found in my bio here.

I encourage people to become activists. If something is not being done, don't wait for someone else to step up and do it. That person is you. If there is no law in your city or county, push to create it yourself. Now that I have the experience as a Commissioner in the City, I can help people figure out how to craft laws they can bring locally to their own supervisors and committees.

NVA: Thank you so much, Christine. We wish you all the best as you continue your important work. Happy Earth Day!