Warning: Before you take another bite of that bacon cheeseburger, you might want to have a chat with Orly Degani. While the Los Angeles appellate attorney may not persuade you to go vegan, her convictions about the evils of factory farming make swallowing more difficult for the average carnivore. In fact, Degani’s advocacy for the humane treatment of animals is so compelling that it has put her at the forefront of animal rights law in California. Last year, she took her concerns straight to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s office and convinced lawmakers to ban the practice of force-feeding ducks and geese for the production of foie gras. That’s one giant, web-footed step forward for farm animals everywhere.
Degani works to protect all manner of species from crimes against nonhumanity. Her compassion for the furry, feathered and scaled is limitless. It’s the kind of compassion that moved her to adopt an elderly, flea-bitten, arthritic Chow dog from the animal shelter without a second thought.
Degani has the legal prowess to turn her empathy into action. The former federal prosecutor and California Daily Journal “Top 20 Under 40” attorney recently joined Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold as special counsel in the appellate group with an arrangement that allows her to devote more time to her pro bono work. Between creating legislation that protects geese and helping kittens keep their claws, Degani can use the extra time.
“I receive hundreds of requests daily,” Degani says. “Unfortunately, there are very few lawyers who have the time or are willing to take on cases that deal with animal issues.” To address that shortage, Degani founded and chairs two organizations, L.A. Lawyers for Animals and the Los Angeles Bar Association’s Animal Issues Committee, both with more than 40 members.
While Degani meets many lawyers who are interested in animal issues, she finds most are reluctant to get involved because they have no experience in the area. “Any lawyer can help out,” she says, “and we really don’t know what we’re capable of doing until we go out there and try it.” This is particularly true, she says, in an arena with such a dearth of both lawyers and legal precedence. “Even attorneys without prior background in this work can quickly become involved with critical, important animal issues, collaborate with huge animal rights organizations, and have an impact,” she says.
As a student at Stanford University Law School, Degani never dreamed she would someday help draft and secure passage of bills — like the foie gras ban — with the potential to influence the entire nation’s treatment of animals. At that time, she was just beginning to foster her passion for animal rights.
“It started while in Stanford when I read the book Diet for a New America,” she recalls. “Before that I had never really thought about where my food was coming from, or what the conditions were like for the animals I was eating.” While Degani grew up with pets and was always an animal lover, she says “earlier on in my life I would eat a hamburger without thinking about the fact that it came from an animal not that different from my cat, who I love dearly — and would never eat.”
Deeply moved by the information she read, Degani adjusted her life to reflect her beliefs. First she became a vegetarian, and then a vegan. Eventually, she decided to avoid anything made from wool or leather or any products tested on animals.
While her commitment to animal rights grew, she developed her chops as an attorney by working on cases that involved, well, people. In 1994, fresh out of Stanford, she clerked for Judge David Thompson on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals focusing her attention on criminal cases, which solidified her interest in appellate law. After serving as a federal prosecutor in the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s office, she went on to work at Encino civil appellate firm Horvitz & Levy. She has appeared several times before the Ninth Circuit Court and the California Court of Appeals with, she says, smiling, “more wins than losses.” Her extensive experience in Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) litigation includes the recent, highly publicized Flatley v. Mauro case involving “Lord of the Dance” star Michael Flatley’s attempt to sue an Illinois lawyer for $100 million for alleged extortion. After an appellate court decided to let Flatley’s suit proceed despite Mauro’s filing of an anti-SLAPP motion, Degani stepped in with a petition for review that the California Supreme Court granted in December 2004. The case is still pending.
In 1998, while still a full-time appellate attorney at Horvitz & Levy, Degani became involved with the Los Angeles animal rescue group Kitten Rescue. She took in cats and dogs until they found permanent adoption. But even with a house full of rescued animals, she had a strong desire to do more. “I began to feel guilty that I wasn’t using my training and ability as an attorney to help.”
When she cut back on her appellate work, all manner of species reaped the benefits. She put more energy into drafting ordinances like the 2003 West Hollywood ban on the declawing of cats. As Degani explains it, declawing is a cruel and painful practice that essentially amputates an animal’s toe at the last joint, causing long-term damage. When the ordinance was passed, West Hollywood became the first city in the country to outlaw the procedure. The following year, the California Legislature followed suit with a ban on the declawing of wild and exotic cats. While the state law remains, the West Hollywood ordinance was overturned in Los Angeles Superior Court in November 2005. A judge ruled in favor of the California Veterinary Medical Association after the organization filed a lawsuit arguing that the ordinance was unconstitutional.
Degani is disappointed but not discouraged. “This is a practice that is illegal in so many countries. There’s no question that it’s cruel and will eventually be illegal in this country. It’s just a matter of time.” Degani is in discussion with the City of West Hollywood about plans to appeal the decision.
It’s hard enough to argue on behalf of lovable, domesticated cats but try rallying for the sake of kangaroos. In 2003, animal rights group Viva International Voice for Animals filed a lawsuit that sought to prohibit the makers of Adidas from selling shoes with cleats made with kangaroo leather. Although the case was recently dismissed by a state appeals court in San Francisco, Degani has not lost her steam. In January 2006, she filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court.
“Adidas is clearly violating the law,” she says. “There is a penal code section in California that says you cannot trade in kangaroo.” A 1970 state law banned the commercial importation or sales of products from animals that had been listed as threatened species, including three species of kangaroos. While those species were subsequently taken off the list, Degani believes, the ban continues to be extremely relevant, and Adidas is in blatant violation.
Degani admits that working on these cases can be extremely taxing and often discouraging. “You have to accept a lot of losses,” she says. But she sees her work in the larger context of social change. “There are changes that we never thought would be possible — women’s right to vote, the end of slavery. Making the humane treatment of animals part of our lives and our legal system will come someday, but change is extremely slow.”
On the rare occasions she does get discouraged, Degani reminds herself of her position. “Even if I get frustrated, it’s nothing like the suffering being experienced by so many animals. They can’t just walk away from their situation, so neither can I.”
So she will stick to the cases at hand. Frequently questioned about the validity of helping animals, she has become unwaveringly clear in her answer. “I definitely feel it’s important to work toward alleviating people’s suffering,” she explains, “but there’s a tremendous amount of animal suffering that is not being addressed, and it’s equally important.”
And ultimately, she says, “if you open your circle of compassion to include animals, you will no doubt include people as well.”