Pioneering Animal Welfare in the Light of the Law—In Conversation with Katherine Anne Meyer

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Katherine Anne Meyer

“Animals do not speak ‘humanese,’ so they rely on people to advocate on their behalf.”

Monika Berankyte, Women Leadership Editor

Katherine Anne Meyer is a Director of Animal Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School and has over 30 years of animal advocacy experience under her belt.

However, this description falls short of fully depicting Meyer’s contribution to our society—she is an inspiring and highly accomplished leader with a personal mission to end the unnecessary exploitation of animals in food, research, and entertainment industries.

When I ask Meyer how she got into this field, she shares with me that she has always been an animal lover, who grew up surrounded by pets, spending lots of time outside. Career choice was seeded in childhood joy that became a personal interest, which in turn developed into a professional passion and personal mission. After graduating from law school, Meyer started practicing public advocacy which entailed environmental and animal law. Meyer’s stellar record in winning high-profile cases attracted attention and more clients carrying animal welfare cases showed up at the door, allowing Meyer to focus solely on animal advocacy.

“Animal law is very difficult—all the cards are stacked against us,” says Meyer. “In addition, it is very emotionally draining because you are representing animals that are mistreated. Photos, videos, literature, and horrific practices that you need to work with certainly don’t make it easy. But all these animals don’t speak ‘humanese,’ so they rely on humans to advocate on their behalf.”

When most people think of animal law, they think of animals seeking protection in their own right in the light of law. This space gets a lot of publicity. However, Meyer’s approach is different: “We focus on using existing laws in innovative ways to be the advocates for the animals now, because we don’t want to wait until the laws change.”

I ask Meyer what, according to her opinion, a key to advancing animal welfare is. “Public education,” she replies. “Too many people don’t understand how poorly the major industries—agriculture, research, and entertainment—treat animals. I was working for many years on the case that ended the use of animals in the circus field. Once people learned about how terrible the situation was, they acted, and in the end, we together as a society changed a part of the industry. Public education is an extremely important puzzle piece to advance animal welfare because it holds the power to change habits.” I inquire how to address the public education of animal welfare, and Meyer says that she believes it needs to start from an early age. “Most children treat animals with extreme care and love. Our natural inclination is to empathize and love them, so we need to start building on this from a young age. We need to explain to children the issues of mistreating animals and what all of these industries that surround us every day mean to other sentient beings. Also, even though all the sources of information on this topic are crucial, visual media is the most impactful. Documentaries, videos, and photographs are the most effective in making people feel the connection to what really is going on. Reading is not the same. It doesn’t do the same job.”

When I ask what habits Meyer practices everyday as a consumer to advance this cause, she replies that she practices what she preaches as much as she can. “I am vegan, I don’t attend or support zoos, all the pets at home are rescue animals, and I also support particular charities that advance the animal welfare cause.”

Aside from her own contribution as a lawyer in this field, Meyer plays a critical role in developing the next generation of animal welfare advocates. Meyer mentions that she focuses on preparing her students for the challenges they will face in their future career. “It’s very important to impress upon students that we have to meet the highest of standards in everything we do in this industry. The law is not on our side—it often is difficult to even get into court with these cases. I believe that to become excellent lawyers, students first need to get their hands dirty. I, therefore, give students the maximum responsibility possible and support them when necessary. During my early years I worked for Ralph Nader—he taught me how to creatively use the law for the underrepresented and he inspired me to be who I am today. I aim to do the same for my students.”

How can HBS students help, I ask. “Well, it’s all businesses that we are having these animal welfare issues in. If future leaders in the food industry could address animal welfare, it will really shift some horrific practices. We also have some classes on this topic right across the river,” smiles Meyer.

Monika Berankyte (MBA ’22) is from Lithuania and lived in London prior to coming to HBS. Monika is a whole-foods plant-based enthusiast, who loves the outdoors and swimming in particular. She describes her happy place as reading an exciting book coupled with fresh mint tea.