Caitlin Hawks – PETA Foundation
- Written by: Kate Gardner
- Produced by: Matthew Warner & Gavin O’Connor
- Est. reading time: 5 mins
When Caitlin Hawks helped remove a tiger from its enclosure, she wasn’t posing for a photo at a “seedy roadside zoo,” she says. Quite the opposite.
The general counsel of litigation for the PETA Foundation was helping move the animal to a sanctuary so it could be rehabilitated. She and her team had just won an Endangered Species Act lawsuit against Tri-State Zoological Park in Maryland.
“Getting to remove animals from harmful situations so they can go somewhere safe and humane is so rewarding,” says Hawks, who became a PETA member when she was 11 years old. “My work allows me to see the actual impact on animals.”
The PETA Foundation, more formally the Foundation to Support Animal Protection, litigates on behalf of PETA Inc. as well as other animal rights organizations and individuals. The Foundation also provides finance, IT and HR services to PETA Inc., which is the public-facing organization that runs advocacy campaigns.
Hawks joined the PETA Foundation in 2015 when it was starting to take on large cases, such as civil claims for violations of the Endangered Species Act. She suggested that if the organization were to continue this level of work, it would need to build a legal team specialized in animal protection litigation and run it like a boutique law firm. So, over the past several years, she’s grown the team from three to 10, and they now have a few dozen cases on their docket at any given time.
Two of the PETA Foundation’s largest and most public cases in recent years were against two men from the Netflix show Tiger King.
In 2017, Hawks and her team helped PETA sue Tim Stark, who owned a roadside zoo in Indiana, for violating the Endangered Species Act. As stated in the lawsuit, his business model involved taking tiger and lion cubs away from their mothers prematurely, declawing them, depriving them of nutrients and care, and then working them to the point of exhaustion in photo op events.
The PETA Foundation won the case in August 2020, resulting in a permanent injunction barring Stark from continuing this conduct and from possessing big cats. The 25 he owned at that time were brought to sanctuaries, but he had preemptively transferred four cubs to Jeff Lowe after PETA filed suit.
According to Hawks, the PETA Foundation sued Lowe for mistreating and neglecting the animals he took from Stark. The Foundation won the case at trial in February 2022, and Lowe was found to have violated the Endangered Species Act by inflicting “appalling cruelty.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, citing legal theories and evidence presented by PETA Foundation lawyers, eventually seized Lowe’s remaining animals. In December 2022, the U.S. Senate signed a bill into law banning cub petting in the animal entertainment industry.
“We’re very happy it’s come to an end,” Hawks says. “With our cases, we seek to create precedent that can prevent similar incidents and create this type of change.”
Seeking the truth
Hawks’s work extends to consumer protection, too, with her and her team currently working on two active class action lawsuits against companies alleged to have made false claims.
One case is against Vital Farms Inc., a Texas-based company that sells its eggs nationwide. According to Hawks, the consumers she’s representing say the company made false claims on its packaging about treating hens and chicks humanely. In March 2022, a Texas federal court judge denied Vital’s motion to dismiss, and Hawks and her team have since been in discovery.
Another case is against Organic Valley Dairy Co., an international farming operation based in Wisconsin. Hawks and her team are representing a woman accusing the company of falsely claiming it treats cows and calves humanely. The case was filed in July 2022; and as of January, Organic Valley’s motion to dismiss was pending. If it’s denied, Hawks and her team will go into discovery, which she says can take months or even years.
Their heavy workload is often supported by technology, such as Worldox, a document management system recently acquired by NetDocuments, the #1 trusted cloud platform where legal professionals do their best work, in October 2022.
“When I created the PETA Foundation’s litigation division, one of my goals was to ensure that we had all the tools and technology necessary to operate like a law firm,” she says. “Worldox is one of those tools.”
Gruesome details aside, Hawks says most of the cases her team works on are trying because of their complexity. This is why she seeks to hire people with strong litigation experience and often finds lawyers from large firms.
“Large scale litigation like that teaches you the nuts and bolts of cases and how to take on aggressive opponents,” she says. “It’s a level of practice that informs any type of case work going forward.”
A firm foundation
Hawks began her career with a large firm, which was an unexpected turn from what she’d dreamt of growing up as an animal lover.
“I remember being very small and asking where our steak came from,” she says. “When my parents told me, I decided right then, at four years old, that I wanted to be a vegetarian. It didn’t happen until I was 11 because they wanted me to wait until I was old enough to make some of my meals on my own.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in politics and government from University of Puget Sound, Hawks went to the University of California, Los Angeles – School of Law because it offered courses in animal law.
While she held related internships in school, Hawks’s trajectory changed during a class symposium when she met a lawyer from the firm Milbank LLP. He asked if she’d work at the firm and gain litigation experience before pursuing an animal rights job. Seeing the value, she joined Milbank after graduating in 2008.
“The experience I gained was invaluable and prepared me immensely for the work I do today,” Hawks says. “I’m so glad to have that foundation.”
After nearly five years, she moved to Seattle and joined the firm Savitt Bruce and Willey. Two years later, she saw a posting for her dream job. Since starting as the PETA Foundation’s litigation counsel seven years ago, she’s been promoted a few times, including to her current position in April 2022.
“I’m so energized by this work and am grateful that I get to do it with such a great team of people,” Hawks says. “They’re brilliant strategists and collaborators whose input I know I can trust.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2023 Edition here.
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