It was March 1993. Jeff Kerr was sitting in the audience, waiting to hear a lecture at the University of Maryland. At the time, he was enjoying his career as the top lawyer at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. And he had no idea his life was about to drastically change.
The scheduled lecturer was stuck in traffic, so he sent word to his assistant to improvise and provide the group with a presentation—anything she could come up with to talk about for an hour. The assistant, animal rights activist Kathy Hessler, was prepared. She presented “Does your food have a face?,” which exposed the abuse and exploitation of animals for food and entertainment. Kerr went home and ridded his kitchen of every animal product. Over the course of the next few months, he also phased out all his animal-product clothing. Since then, Kerr became a devout animal rights activist and vegan.
Kerr soon took his passion for animal rights beyond his personal life and into his professional life. After several years at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the organization’s involvement in animal testing, Kerr sought out a career that better suited his lifestyle. And—like kismet—he found it one day while perusing the Washington Post.
“I actually saw an ad for a staff attorney at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] Foundation,” he says. After going through the interview process, Kerr joined the PETA Foundation, which supports operations of PETA affiliates around the world, as a staff attorney in 1993. A year later, the animal rights organization named him general counsel and senior vice president of corporate affairs, a position he’s held ever since.
Q: Tell me about your background.
A: I grew up in the Midwest and moved to Virginia when I was in high school. I was exposed to so much U.S. history living in the Washington, D.C., area, and I was inspired by those who stood up for the underdogs. I was a child during the civil rights movement and was inspired by people working for civil rights. I truly went to law school in hopes of doing something that mattered.
Q: Why did you decide to go to the University of Virginia Law School?
A: I was really inspired by those people who were engaged in public service for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves. It was a wonderful law school and had a reputation of attracting the type of student that was well-rounded and involved in things beyond just law school.
Q: How did your career progress after law school?
A: I worked at a couple of firms for a few years doing civil litigation, but I wanted to get into public practice. So after private practice, I had an opportunity to become corporate counsel to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I was 29, and I oversaw all administrative aspects of running the business. I was there for three years, and I was not looking to leave. But the foundation funded animal experimentation, and that bothered me. Animal rights was a calling, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: What’s a typical day in the life of Jeff Kerr as PETA’s GC?
A: No two days are the same. It’s always business hours somewhere there is a PETA affiliate. It is a very demanding job, and I thrive on the diversity of it. We are most known for working to compile information for undercover investigations to create the complaints that go to law enforcement to encourage them to prosecute for animal cruelty. And we have had great success over the years doing just that. We have had some historic firsts, such as the first conviction for experiments on animals and the first-ever felony cruelty animal charges for abusing birds on factory farms.
But there is one case I am proudest of—and here we are really pushing the envelope. We filed and argued in 2011 the first-ever suit seeking constitutional protection for animals. We filed it on behalf of five wild orcas at SeaWorld in Orlando, arguing that they are enslaved in violation of the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment prohibits the condition of slavery without specification of class of victims. These orcas were ripped from their homes and families where they would have spent their entire lives and forced to perform for SeaWorld’s profits, breed for future performance orcas and live in confined, concrete tanks that would be comparable to you or me living in a bathtub. These animals would swim 100 miles a day in the open ocean. By any reasonable definition, that is enslavement. If they can suffer from these prohibitive conditions, they should be entitled to the corresponding protection.
Q: How did that case turn out?
A: The judge ruled against us, but the first civil rights cases didn’t win either. We are paving the way for the next suits to follow.
Q: What do you find to be most rewarding about your work?
A: Just knowing that our team is fighting every day to stop animal abuse and exploitation wherever it occurs is so rewarding. It is very exciting to be a part of the solution.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
A: The first challenge is that we are largely using laws designed to enable animal exploitation. Fortunately that is changing, and more laws are being enacted. But they are the most minimal of protections. And of course we always like to have more resources to have more lawyers to do more work to help more animals. Anybody who wants to do pro bono work to help us, please get in touch!
Q: Did you have a mentor as you were growing up in your legal career?
A: PETA’s longtime outside counsel is Phil Hirschkop—he is an icon of the civil rights era. He argued Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage, and won. It has been one of the great privileges of my career to work with him and learn from him. To see him on a daily basis never willing to give up—he never stops advocating for anyone who is oppressed or is in a position of weakness—it’s an inspiration.
Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer wanting a successful career in-house?
A: Go into some kind of public service about which you are passionate, which will help somebody who really needs your help. The money doesn’t matter. The money doesn’t fulfill you. The corporations and law firms don’t need you. The animals need you. The children need you. The oppressed need you. Follow your passion.
Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would your dream job be?
A: One that was most effective in helping animals—and that would be president of the U.S. so I can make certain that all federal agencies that are supposed to be enforcing animal protection laws do it to their fullest. Or I would be a shortstop for the New York Yankees.