“We can’t change behavior if people don’t understand what’s wrong with the status quo," wrote Kara Shannon JD'15. “The industrial system is based on indoor confinement systems that strip animals of any enrichment, yet people expect animals to be well-treated, to have enough space to move around and ideally, to spend time outdoors. As more and more people recognize this disconnect between expectation and reality, they’re demanding more of farmers and companies.”
Kara is the Manager of the Farm Animal Welfare campaigns at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), based in New York City. The ASPCA recently partnered with Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems to create a new tool for farmers—the Farm Animal Welfare Certification Guide—designed to help farmers, food companies, restaurant owners and chefs understand the three most meaningful animal welfare certification programs. Kara helped facilitate this partnership, as a VLS alumna and as a passionate defender of animal welfare.
She recently answered several questions from the Alumni Office.
Though there really is no “typical day” at the ASPCA, the majority of my work revolves around drafting educational materials. The ASPCA’s farm animal program is committed to creating a more humane, transparent food system. My work towards this goal is rooted in our engagement with consumers and farmers. Our Shop With Your Heart campaign educates consumers about how to recognize and support higher-welfare farmers by encouraging them to look for welfare-certified products and more plant-based options. This campaign required the creation of a number of different consumer resources, from a campaign video to a state-by-state list of welfare-certified farms to a helpful guide to commonly used welfare claims and labels. We do all of this work to make an otherwise incredibly complicated topic—farm animal welfare and welfare labeling/marketing—easier for our audience to understand, while enabling them to enact positive changes for farm animals.
As we increase the demand for these certified products, we’re also working more and more with farmers to help them better understand and hopefully choose certification for their farm. Just this past January, in partnership with the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, we released the Farm Animal Welfare Certification Guide, a comprehensive guide to the standards and processes of three different welfare certification programs. So here we have another educational material, albeit more involved than our consumer resources, meant to make understanding welfare certification a bit easier for the farming community.
Ultimately, much like in law school, I spend most of my time reading and writing!
The main challenge that I deal with on a daily basis is balancing the breadth of issues we attempt to cover with the amount of work our small team can reasonably offer. Farm animal issues are incredibly dynamic. In the relatively short time that I’ve worked for the ASPCA, I’ve dedicated my time to consumer-facing education campaigns, farmer focused outreach, USDA regulations, state legislative campaigns and a number of adjacent issues such as antibiotic use and sustainable agriculture. With so many avenues to better the lives of farm animals, it can be hard to whittle it down to where your time is best served. We’re constantly checking in to make sure our work is in line with our organizational goals, which ultimately means determining if we’re dedicating our time to the projects that will have the largest impact for farm animals.
I think this increasing focus on farm animal welfare springs first from consumer demand. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it’s raised. We’ve seen this in the huge growth of organic and local products as people attempt to connect more with the food they’re eating every day. As consumer awareness about the inhumane conditions on factory farms increased, we saw more and more interest in alternative food systems that allow animals to carry out their natural behaviors. This awareness, so necessary to the improvements we’ve seen, can be attributed almost entirely to animal welfare organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS who have been educating the public about the plight of factory-farmed animals for over a decade now. We can’t change behavior if people don’t understand what’s wrong with the status quo. The industrial system is based on indoor confinement systems that strip animals of any enrichment, yet people expect animals to be well-treated, to have enough space to move around and ideally, to spend time outdoors. As more and more people recognize this disconnect between expectation and reality, they’re demanding more of farmers and companies.
As a former student of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS), I was well-versed in both the overarching goals of CAFS and the exceptional work that it has produced thus far. I had pushed for an animal agriculture-focused project during my time as a student clinician, but there simply weren’t any projects coming our way. When I realized that there was this important tool absent from the universe of farmer resources, CAFS was the first place to pop into my head. CAFS is committed to creating helpful resources that support the “good food” movement, which is exactly the role I see the certification guide playing. Plus, as an animal advocacy organization, it’s always helpful to have an objective, third-party involved in our projects. CAFS added an extra layer of academic credibility to our work, helping to ensure that the guide could stand on its own in the farming community.
One of the most important things I learned during my law school education was the importance of being able to translate complicated legal issues into something the average person could easily understand. This was a huge focus of my work in the Food and Agriculture Clinic and continues to play a big part in my daily work. The issues we work on are incredibly complicated, particularly in the legal and regulatory space. The federal regulation of animal welfare claims is a complete disaster, a web of voluntary programs, mandated labeling, vague regulations and self-reporting divided between two different federal agencies. My VLS courses on legal writing, food regulation and policy, the Farm Bill, administrative law and public law have all served as incredibly helpful foundations to this work.
I don’t have any particularly exciting “Aha!” moment, as Oprah would call it. My personal and academic interests just kind of snowballed one on top of the other, eventually leading me to animal welfare and higher-welfare farming. I’ve always been an “animal lover,” for lack of a better phrase. This was never limited to companion animals, as I have relatively early memories of begging my mother to take me to a farm to hang out with the horses and cows. (Even now, my social media presence is mostly pictures of cows.) This underlying interest in and compassion for animals ultimately swung my academic pursuits towards farm animal welfare.
I studied Environment and Development as an undergraduate student, where I first got into agriculture and learned about industrial animal agriculture’s particular set of negative environmental externalities. This interest culminated in a field study program in Kenya and Tanzania, where I focused on sustainable agriculture and pastoral systems. The connection to animals and agriculture is obviously much more direct in East Africa, where the majority of people are farming and raising animals for subsistence. Witnessing this culture, so different from that of our industrialized and far-removed farming culture, really cemented my interest in food and agriculture issues. From here I honed in on animal agriculture and animal welfare and haven’t looked back since!
Obviously, I’m a bit biased towards my agriculture and animal-focused courses. I was lucky to get to take summer courses at VLS and absolutely loved Pamela Vesilind’s “The Law of Animals in Agriculture” class. I was also totally fascinated by Bill Eubank’s “The Public Health Implications of U.S. Agricultural and Food Policy.” Ultimately, I’d love to see the federal government take meaningful action to improve the lives of farm animals in this country. Both of these classes really opened up my eyes to the different avenues that change could come from, while simultaneously grounding me in the incredibly long road that would inevitably come before any victory.
And, of course, I really valued my time in the Food and Agriculture Clinic with Jamie Renner, who was one of the authors of the certification guide. Jamie has an incredibly motivating eagerness to learn new things, often seemingly impossibly excited about something as benign as different governance structures for farmers markets. This eagerness led him to completely adopt the issue of farm animal welfare and certification programs as his own, resulting in a resource that I am immensely proud to offer to the farming community.
Kara has also been a mentor to current VLS students, saying, "I’ve really enjoyed being a mentor to current VLS students. I’m always impressed by the determined, talented people VLS attracts!" Learn more about the alumni mentoring program here.
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