Here I am sitting with JT, a feline companion I lived with as a child. He was a very friendly guy who used to “kiss” me like a dog, but with a much more sandy tongue.

I was born an animal advocate. Even though I grew up in a rural community in Idaho – there was a slaughterhouse right next to the only stoplight in town – at age 4 I knew I didn’t want to eat animals. . We were eating cube steak for dinner when I asked my mother where it came from. After she told me, I sat at the table for what felt like hours, refusing to eat. Shortly after, I told my parents that I wanted to become a vegetarian. They said I had to wait until I could cook myself. I stopped eating meat at 11.

passion prevails

During these years, my desire to help animals has never faded. When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I wrote an angry letter to TV news anchor Ted Koppel after he made on-air comments in favor of “killing the wolves.”

I joined PETA in elementary school. My parents had given me a book with a directory of animal welfare groups, and when I read PETA’s description, I asked my dad to send a check for my $16 membership fee. My father hunted and fished and even owned a business that made buckskin shoes and bags. I’m sure he had no idea what I signed up for.

A legal eagle takes flight

In college, I founded a campus animal advocacy group that relied on PETA for all kinds of resources. I went vegan and my mom quickly followed suit. Today, even my father, the former hunter, is mainly vegan.

In 2003, I did an internship for PETA and participated in circus events. My job was to wear a body-screen TV showing how animals are abused, while another activist, painted as a tiger, sat in a cage.

Although I love grassroots activism, I felt driven to make an impact in another way: I went to law school specifically to become an animal rights lawyer. I attended the University of California, Los Angeles because it had just received a million dollar grant from Bob Barker to study animal rights. I continued to help the animals however I could. I got a legal internship in the Animal Protection Unit of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and after graduation I did voluntarily work for animals.

But my heart was working for PETA, and now I help lead the most efficient and innovative animal rights litigation team in the world.

From touring with PETA’s “Tiger” to taking down a “Tiger King”

PETA attorneys are redefining and expanding the way the law views animals and creatively applying it to secure and protect their rights. One way we do this is by taking legal action against roadside zoos that violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

My team and I helped dethrone tiger king villain Tim Stark when we won a lawsuit setting the first-ever federal precedent that prematurely separating tigers and lions from their mothers, declawing them, or using them in public encounters violates the ESA.

My team is also tackling “cruelty-free washing” and our landmark lawsuit against Nellie’s Free Range Eggs, whose packaging depicted hens enjoying lush, grassy fields, warned egg sellers: even if they misleadingly advertise that their eggs are “free,” they cannot misrepresent hens frolicking outside with impunity.

Another successful lawsuit resulted in the transfer of three big cats, including one named Cheyenne (pictured below), to an accredited sanctuary in Colorado and won a ruling barring Tri-State Zoological Park, the roadside zoo where they have languished for many years, owning or possessing endangered or threatened species.

A side-by-side composite image of a tiger, behind bars at a roadside zoo and healthy in the sanctuary where she has been transferred.

Cheyenne, before and after being moved to a sanctuary from a roadside zoo.

I’ve come a long way since I was that little girl in Idaho, but one thing hasn’t changed: I’ve never wavered in my belief that all animals have rights.

Written by Caitlin Hawks, General Counsel – Litigation. Originally published in Global PETA.

When we win, we see the impact of our accomplishments. Your donations help PETA attorneys take on well-funded adversaries in the courtroom and win historic victories for animals around the world.

Donate now