Inside the Harvard Law School Clinic Advocating for Animal Rights


{shortcode-1f83bfd9335e43d71a36e9e0221975096693f44f}arvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic will enter a new chapter after the departure of its director at the end of this semester.

From an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding its laboratory inspection policies to successful advocacy efforts to allow plant-based milk alternatives to be labeled and sold as “milk,” students and staff at Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic have been hard at work over the last few months.

The Animal Law & Policy Clinic has also campaigned in recent months to change policies governing the treatment of nonhuman primates in research.

The clinic co-authored an open letter to the National Institutes of Health in February, urging the agency to defund a Harvard Medical School lab over its animal research. Last month, the clinic won a lawsuit in Maryland District Court challenging the USDA’s denial of a rulemaking petition that called for improving standards for the treatment of primates involved in research.


Since its establishment by the Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Program in 2019, the clinic has aimed to improve the treatment of animals through policymaking, litigation, and other forms of legal advocacy.

Professor Katherine A. Meyer, the Animal Law & Policy Clinic’s founding director, announced last December that she will be stepping down from her position at the end of the 2022-23 academic year. The search for Meyer’s successor is still ongoing.

Meyer guided the clinic through a rapid rise to prominence, mentoring students as they pursued lawsuits against the USDA and U.S. National Park Service, as well as petitions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to Law School professor Kristen A. Stilt — the faculty director of the Animal Law & Policy Program — the decision to launch the clinic was partly motivated by a “great need for really rigorous advocacy” to complement the program’s scholarly work. She also cited student interest in a clinic dedicated specifically to animal law.

“There’s no substitute for this very intensive work in-house, supervised by a clinical faculty member in this incredibly academically rich setting,” Stilt said.

An ‘Incubator for New Ideas’

The Animal Law & Policy Clinic represented Harvard Law School’s foray into what Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 called a “burgeoning field” of legal advocacy at the time of its launch.

Meyer, the outgoing clinic director, said the process of starting the clinic was “kind of easy,” as years of experience in animal law at a public interest law firm left her with a plethora of potential policy projects and litigation. As a result, she was ready to get started immediately.

“At my interview — I think — with Kristen Stilt for the job, she said, ‘What’s your vision for the clinic?’ and I pulled out a legal pad that had like 55 project ideas,” Meyer said. “I was like, ‘Go, go, go.’”


Chris Green, executive director of the Animal Law & Policy Program, said the Animal Law & Policy Clinic has sought to differentiate itself from other legal clinics — taking on heftier work than typical student projects and supporting amicus briefs.

“A lot of law school clinics — not just in the animal realm but just generally — they often will just piggyback on other work in the field,” he said. “We really didn’t want to do that.”

Green compared the Animal Law & Policy Clinic to major animal advocacy organizations, though he added that the clinic often has more freedom in choosing its projects.

“Even at a lot of the major animal protection groups, they have such broad donor bases and they have to please a lot of folks that it sometimes keeps them from being as progressive as they might otherwise be,” Green said. “Whereas we have a much smaller donor base and all of our donors really want us to have the complete liberty to swing for the fences.”

The clinic sees its role as an “incubator for new ideas,” Green said, adding that the clinic’s resources and “nimbleness” allow it to pursue its own cases and policy projects with relative freedom.

When choosing projects for the clinic to pursue, Meyer said she tries to ensure that the clinic diversifies its initiatives, as its clinicians pursue a wide variety of academic and professional interests.

Meyer stressed that she did not want the clinic to become too focused on certain areas of animal advocacy and that she instead wanted it to take on a broader scope of issues.

“I wanted to make sure this clinic was not just concentrated on advocacy to make animals be persons,” she said. “My position is there’s a lot of other work that can be done under existing laws to protect and advocate for animals.”

“I wanted to make sure that we were advocating on behalf of animals both in captivity — so research animals, zoo animals, animals used in entertainment — but also animals in the wild,” Meyer added.


Green highlighted another element of the clinic’s approach to animal law: its media strategy. The clinic — unlike some others at the Law School — has a full-time communications director.

“When Kathy first arrived, she was saying how media is such an important part of her litigation strategy,” Green said. “Often, you may actually not prevail in court, but the public attention that is generated about a case that you file is so massive that you sort of achieve the same ends anyway.”

Cultivating Careers

Green said a priority of the clinic is “foregrounding” students and giving them “agency and ownership of their projects.”

Rebecca L. Garverman, a clinical fellow who was involved in the Animal Law & Policy Clinic when she was a student at Harvard Law School, discussed working on an amicus brief for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals when she was a student.

In the case, the Center for Biological Diversity — a nonprofit organization that aims to protect endangered species — challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to refuse to classify the Pacific walrus as an endangered species.

The Center for Biological Diversity argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to consider how climate change would affect walrus habitats. In June 2021, the court ruled in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It was for the Ninth Circuit, which is a very prestigious court, and so to be able to write a brief for them as a student was mind-blowing,” she said. According to an Animal Law & Policy Clinic release, one of the judges quoted from a passage that Garverman drafted in the amicus brief during oral argument.

Third-year law student Ben T. Rankin, who has worked at the Animal Law & Policy Clinic for four semesters and one winter term, spoke about writing a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the West Indian manatee be classified as an endangered species.

“I was working with a number of other students in doing the scientific research that undergirds that kind of rulemaking petition, essentially,” he said. “We got that submitted after three semesters of work. It’s a 156-page document, and it’s in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s hands as of last November and we’re currently waiting on a legally required finding.”

When asked how the Animal Law and Policy Clinic has influenced his legal career, Rankin said, “It has defined it.” He added that he found a summer position as a law clerk through his work at the clinic with the Center for Biological Diversity and that he hopes to enter animal law after law school.

Clinical instructor Rachel Mathews, who worked in PETA’s Captive Animal Law Enforcement division for nine years before joining the clinic, said she enjoys helping to mentor students in the clinic.

“I love working with the students,” Mathews said. “I think the difference between a clinic and actually being in practice is that you have the luxury of really being able to focus on the educational part.”

Mathews, who worked on the clinic’s February open letter to the National Institutes of Health calling on them to stop funding Harvard professor Margaret S. Livingstone’s research with macaque monkeys, said the case was important for the clinic to address in part because it took place in “our backyard.”


In conjunction with researchers from the University of St. Andrews, the clinic published an open letter urging the NIH to rescind funding from Livingstone’s lab, alleging that the lab’s experiments involve “cruel and unnecessary treatment of laboratory animals.”

In a public statement published on Oct. 24, 2022, Livingstone said that the allegations mischaracterized research performed by her lab.

“I realize that working with animals is a privilege that requires vigilance and responsibility. To honor that, we take great care of our animals beyond what’s mandated by even the most stringent federal regulations,” she wrote.

According to Mathews, the clinic decided to go forward with the open letter after not receiving any response from the Medical School’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. She said the clinic received an acknowledgment from Harvard University administration copying Harvard Medical School, but that the Medical School itself has not responded.

“I can’t say yet what we’re doing next, but this is not the end of it,” she said. “We’re not just going to send a letter off into space, but we’re looking at other alternatives both for change within the University but also systemic change.”

‘Big Shoes to Fill’

As Harvard Law School’s academic year comes to a close, so too does Meyer’s tenure as clinic director — kicking off the next chapter of the clinic’s animal advocacy.

Meyer said she hopes the clinic will continue to pursue a multitude of avenues for advocacy.

“I would love to see the diversity of kinds of projects: some litigation, some policy, some legislative, some organizing. All of the different aspects going on at the same time,” Meyer said. “I’m hoping whoever comes in here will continue the clinic in a similar vein.”

She said she hopes to remain involved at the clinic in some capacity after stepping down from the directorship, such as in an advisory role.


Stilt, the faculty director of the Animal Law & Policy Program, said she sees two major opportunities for growth that she hopes the clinic will explore in the near future. In the near future, Stilt said she wants to see the clinic grow internationally.

She hopes the clinic will represent “places that have very strong traditions of their own but could benefit from a collaboration with us.”

The second area Stilt hopes to see progress in is climate change, explaining that the impacts of climate change on animal populations and agriculture are “already squarely within what the clinic is concerned about right now.”

Rankin, the third-year law student, said Meyer’s departure will leave a void at the Animal Law & Policy Clinic, adding that the next director “certainly has big shoes to fill.”

“What I’ve always found and loved about being in the clinic is that we’re able to get really personal feedback from this person who’s considered a titan in the field,” Rankin said of Meyer. “I don’t know that I would have been in the animal law space if she hadn’t been such a forceful proponent for making sure that it is really expansively conceived.”

Reflecting on the clinic’s four-year history, Green, the executive director of the Animal Law & Policy Program, quipped that if he could change one thing, he would “contact someone at MIT to see if they could clone Kathy and so we could have her a bit longer.”

“The success of the clinic is beyond our wildest dreams, honestly,” he added.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.