Animal advocates: Two students honored with annual State Bar Wanda A. Nash Award


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Alicia Prygoski is appalled at the treatment of farm animals and their exemption from federal and state anti-cruelty laws. “It’s completely legal and widely accepted to cut off their tails without anesthesia and confine them to spaces so small they can't move, and systematically starve them, among other painful practices,” explains Prygoski, a May graduate from WMU-Cooley Law School.

“It would be illegal to treat our pets this way. But farm animals have the same capacity to suffer, so it should be illegal to treat them this way, too. Farm animals deserve the same basic protections that other animals have already had for years, and that’s something I hope to work toward by passing laws to shift the industry to more humane farming practices.”

Prygoski, one of two recipients of the State Bar of Michigan Animal Law Section’s annual Wanda A. Nash Award, notes that illegal, intentional animal abuse is ubiquitous in the animal agriculture industry.

“Countless undercover investigations into factory farms have shown workers performing gruesome, unimaginable acts of cruelty on farm animals,” she says. “This kind of abuse needs to be exposed so those responsible can be prosecuted. We need to continue the fight against ‘ag-gag’ laws and ensure prosecutors crack down on farm animal abusers to set a precedent that this kind of cruelty is unacceptable.”

Prygoski recently completed a four-month externship as a policy intern on the Farm Animal Protection team with the Humane Society of the United States in Maryland. She researched and analyzed legislation and laws from several states. She also worked on a ballot initiative in Massachusetts that would ban the sale of products from factory farms using extreme confinement practices.

“If it passes in November, Massachusetts would be the first state in the nation to ban all products from factory farms where animals are confined in spaces so small they can't turn around or extend their limbs,” she explain. “It's a groundbreaking measure because it's aimed at stopping one of the most egregious kinds of animal abuse that exists, and it would send a message to the industry that consumers want their products from animals who were raised humanely.

“This measure will have a huge impact for farm animals and will hasten the end of these painful and damaging practices. It was great to have the chance to contribute to such a historical initiative that will do so much good.”

During her externship, a “Right to Farm” constitutional amendment was introduced in the Nebraska legislature that would make it extremely difficult for future legislators to pass any laws offering even basic protection to farm animals. “We worked with other organizations and Nebraska citizens to fight this measure, which was eventually tabled by the bill sponsor,” she says.

Prygoski chose the niche of animal law and policy because these arenas can impact animals on an incredibly broad scale, she notes. “For example, passing a law to ban extreme confinement of farm animals is going to affect millions of lives and decrease widespread suffering. I want to help the greatest number of animals I can in the most effective way I can. For me, that means creating large-scale changes in our legal and political systems.”

Prygoski knew from a young age that she wanted to devote her life to helping animals. While earning her undergrad degree from the University of Michigan, she worked for an environmental policy organization and realized she had a passion for legislation and lobbying. She headed to WMU-Cooley Law School in 2013. Highlights of her law school experience include Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's Animal Law and Legislative Process courses, and a Scholarly Writing course where she drafted a 40-page paper on constitutional issues surrounding “Ag-Gag” laws.

“When farm animal cruelty occurs, the agriculture industry should pass laws to protect the animals – instead, several states have introduced or passed ‘ag-gag’ legislation, laws designed to intimidate whistleblowers and deter them from exposing the abuse to the public,” she explains. “Instead of fixing the abuse, the agriculture industry’s solution is to just cover it up. These laws are terrible public policy that hurt animals and trample on the rights of whistleblowers.”

Prygoski founded and served as president of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) chapter at WMU-Cooley’s Lansing campus. The organization, honored by WMU-Cooley’s Student Bar Association as the Lansing campus’ Best New Organization, held several fundraisers and works with the Capital Area Humane Society to raise awareness about pet adoptions. “Even though our SALDF chapter was small, I think we accomplished a lot and made an impact for Michigan's animals,” she says.

Last year Prygoski was one of four students nationwide to receive the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Advancement in Animal Law Scholarship.

She also competed in the National Animal Law Competition at Harvard Law School where she took second place in the legislative drafting and lobbying competition.

She enjoys playing with her three rescue guinea pigs, and rescue dog Patches. “He had been severely abused and neglected and had a lot of physical and behavioral problems,” she says. “He's a great dog now and has really recovered well, but seeing what he went through motivates me to help animals that endure similar things.”

Kate Brindle, a July graduate of Michigan State University College of Law and also a recipient of the 2016 SBM Wanda A. Nash award, became interested in animal issues at the age of 9, when a community swimming pool hosted a goldfish-catching event.

“I remember seeing kids smashing fish against the pool, and I had a gut reaction of sympathy for the fish,” she says. With the support of her mother, she met with the pool director to discuss her concerns – her first step on the road to animal advocacy.

Brindle founded Students for Animal Rights while in grad school at Eastern Michigan University. “I was really proud of our work – not only did we hold monthly demonstration events at KFC, urging the company to change the way it slaughters its chickens to controlled atmosphere killing, a less cruel method than standard methods, we also worked with the administration to offer more plant-based options in the residence halls,” she says.

Her later work at non-profit organizations made Brindle realize that animal cruelty laws are often inadequate and do not offer enough protection. She spent a year as a campaigner for PETA in Norfolk, Va., planning and conducting demonstration and outreach events across the United States and Canada. “In addition to serving as a spokesperson to local and national media outlets, I loved getting to communicate and work with local activists and provide them with information about animal issues,” she says.

Her work as an assistant at the Animals and Society Institute in Ann Arbor inspired her to head to law school. “I was responsible for helping to track animal cruelty cases throughout the country and contacting courts to persuade the judges to sentence the offenders to not just jail or prison time, but to a unique rehabilitation program called AniCare, which seeks to teach empathy for animals as a way to reduce recidivism rates,” she says.

 In her 2L and 3L year at MSU Law, she participated on the National Animal Law Moot Court Competition Team and attended the annual competition at Harvard Law School in 2015 and 2016. During her 3L year, she was a litigation clerk for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Cotati, Calif.

Like Prygoski, Brindle is passionate about farm animal issues. “While I think advocacy on behalf of all animals is important, I figured this was the area where I could have the most impact due to the large number of animals in this industry,” she says. “I’m encouraged by the variety of states that have passed ballot measures to end the most cruel confinement practices on farms, such as battery cages for chickens and gestation crates for pigs.”

 Brindle is encouraged by changes. In early 2014, she and three other animal advocates spoke to the Michigan State Board of Education about adopting a dissection-choice policy, which was adopted. 
 Brindle volunteers with fundraising for Farm Sanctuary, and participates every year in the Walk for Farmed Animals.

She has volunteered with Humane Lobby Day, where Michigan residents lobby senators and representatives to adopt pro-animal bills, and was involved with the National Lawyers Guild chapter at MSU, where she served as a legal observer at protests.