Peta general counsel Jeffrey Kerr leads his legal team fearlessly into battle with politicians, corporates and anyone else who threatens animal welfare. By Malar Velaigam
Back in the early 1990s, newly qualified lawyer Jeffrey Kerr attended a lecture in the US titled ’Did your Food have a Face?’”I was actually going to another lecture, but it had been replaced,” explains the general counsel for US-based non-for-profit lobby group Foundation to Support Animal Protection, which operates under the brand name People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta).
“I just couldn’t turn away from it,” Kerr continues. “I became a vegan shortly after the lecture and about nine months later I joined Peta as an in-house lawyer [from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation].”
As general counsel, Virginia-based Kerr oversees a six-strong legal team, which is divided evenly into three broad groups – corporate, litigation and regulatory. Although Kerr considers himself a de facto additional member of the corporate team, his primary responsibility is to coordinate all legal activities pertaining to the nine international branches of Peta located across Asia, Europe and the US.
All of the legal team believe in the organisation’s cause – to protect animal welfare – and are, in fact, vegans.
“We have a vegetarian office policy. When you join Peta you receive a vegetarian starter kit,” he says in a rather matter-of-fact manner.
But this way of life does not mean that Kerr’s six vegans are any less ruthless in court or in the boardroom. Indeed, Peta operates in a highly litigious environment: at present the group is embroiled in several of battles all over the globe.
“We are currently being sued by a mall in San Diego over whether we can protest there,” cites Kerr. But this should be a piece of (vegan) cake for Kerr, who has just had another case brought against Peta for protesting at a Oregon-based fur store thrown out of court last month.
Another key win for Kerr was when industry group Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) withdrew its lawsuit against Peta in 2005. Peta had called for the boycott of Australian wool due to sheep being subjected to ’mulesing’ (a process where chunks of flesh are cut from the sheep’s hinds during shearing without any pain relief). Peta instructed Australian firm Gilbert & Tobin on the matter, led by partner Fraser Shepherd.
When AWI announced the withdrawal of the suit, Peta president and founder Ingrid Newkirk warned: “Animal abusers – sue us at your peril.”
This fearless attitude towards conflict has filtered down to Kerr and his team. “We’re always looking for opportunities to bring action against exploiters,” says Kerr. “In fact, to an extent we take lawsuits and wear them as a badge of honour.”
While litigation takes up a substantial amount of Kerr’s time, the legal team is also regularly involved in issues associated with raising awareness of animal cruelty and in Peta’s famous undercover work used to expose serial offenders.
Kerr says that in Peta’s view such investigations are entirely lawful. “Investigation gathers proof and the whole point of undercover work is to expose illegal conduct,” he states.
Peta is widely known (and feared) for its undercover work, with many of these investigations leading to legal action against target companies.
One of the most talked about investigations was when a Peta member went undercover as a technician at drug development company Covance between 2004 and 2005. Peta managed to obtain video footage showing monkeys being tortured, humiliated and beaten, and even self-harming.
Kerr proudly says that Peta won the case outright, although animal rights supporters felt that the $8,720 (£4,295) fine levied on the drug company in April 2006 did little damage to its financial situation or reputation.
With Peta involved in so many high-profile matters, Kerr regularly depends on external lawyers.
“We use outside counsel when we require particular expertise, such as IP, employment or a matter in a non-US jurisdiction,” he says.
For Australian issues, he opts for Sydney-based Gilbert & Tobin, who he says are good communicators, as well as being efficient and effective.
Nabarro has been advising Peta for the past 14 years, while Stone King scored Peta as a client following the hire of Nabarro’s head of charities Jonathan Burchfield and partner Stephen Ravenscroft in May last year.
Kerr admits he still regularly turns to Peta’s long-term outside counsel and renowned civil rights lawyer Phillip Hirschkop, despite his official retirement and the closure of his firm Hirschkop & Associates last year. Hirschkop has been advising Peta since its inception in 1980.
“We talk several times a day sometimes,” says Kerr. “He has literally dedicated his career to standing up for what’s right.”
Hirschkop has been responsible for a number of Peta’s key historic courtroom triumphs, including a case against Las Vegas orangutan trainer Bobby Berosini in 1990 in which Berosini was ordered to pay more than $350,000 (£172,000).
He also advised on a case against US animal testing laboratory Huntington Life Sciences in 2003 in which the laboratory was charged with violating 23 federal laws.
Despite such wins, Kerr says the road ahead is still long, as the law is usually against the organisation. However, he is committed to defending “vigorously the right to speak out for animals”.
“We’re trying to operate in a system under laws designed by politicians and large corporates – these are not animal cruelty-aware individuals,” he says. “But over time, the people will move society forward.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta)
General counsel and vice-president of corporate affairs
|Organisation:||People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta)|
|Title:||General counsel and vice-president of corporate affairs|
|Reporting to:||Co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk|
|Number of employees:||300|
|Annual legal spend:||$400,000 (£197,000)|
|Main law firms:||Gilbert & Tobin (Australia), Nabarro (UK) and Stone King Solicitors (UK)|
|Jeffrey Kerr’s CV:||
George Mason University; University of Virginia School of Law
1987: Associate, Gallop Johnson & Neuman
1989: Associate, Keller and Heckman
1990: Corporate counsel and vice-president, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
1993: General counsel and director of corporate affairs, Peta
1998: General counsel and vice-president of corporate affairs, Peta