Attorney Jennifer Best remembers the first time she filed a preliminary injunction for Friends of Animals back in 2015 to prevent the imminent roundup of wild horses living in the Pine Nut Herd Management Area in Nevada. She woke up early every day to research FoA’s claims and stayed up late drafting its brief. Even while sleeping she dreamt of the wild horses and questions the judge might ask.
“When we got the court order prohibiting the Bureau of Land Management from proceeding with the roundup—it restored some faith in the legal system and reminded me the importance of the work that FoA does,” Best said. “Those horses were spared from being chased by a helicopter and torn from their families and home on the range.”
Best’s expertise and passion for creating legal precedent to end the exploitation of animals resulted in her recent promotion to director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program, which consists of a team of five attorneys and animal law experts based in Centennial, Colorado.
“I am excited to seek out projects and lawsuits that have the potential for creating system-wide change to end and prevent human manipulation, exploitation and abuse of wild animals,” Best said. “This is crucial time. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate and the climate crisis is presenting new difficulties for wildlife. How we face these challenges matters.”
Best pointed out that since she started at FoA in 2013, she’s seen the framework change. At first, the legal team was up against the argument that FoA and its members didn’t have standing to challenge actions that would only kill some animals because if a species wasn’t at risk of imminent extinction, then there was no legal harm.
“Time and again we have prevailed against these arguments,” Best explained. “Animals are more than a replaceable biological unit. Shooting owls out of trees to save another owl species or killing birds at airports is harming someone, even if the species is not at risk. Tearing apart a family of horses is harm. These injuries are legally cognizable. Courts are agreeing and that is progress.
“Even if we don’t win every case, we are pushing the conversation in the right direction and holding the government accountable.”
We asked Best, who earned her J.D. from University of Denver Sturm College of Law with a certificate in environmental and natural resource law, what drew her to legal work that benefits animals. Here she talks about here early love of the natural world and how FoA’s members fuel her arguments in the courtroom.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS LOVED WILDLIFE AND THE ENVIRONMENT?
As far back as I can remember, I have found there is something special and peaceful about being in the natural environment. As a kid, my spare time was always spent outside. I was born in Michigan and in the summers, I would play in lakes nearby until all my skin was wrinkled. In the winter, I would be out in the snow until I had minor frostbite. I moved to Utah at the age of 10 and was in complete awe of the mountains and dramatic red rock formations.
My love and wonder of the outdoors can’t be separated from admiration for the animals who call it home. I am awestruck by the unique powers of each creature—a hawk soaring through the canyon, a lizard shimmying up a rock or a prairie dog calling out to members of its clan. Although I may not be able to understand what animals are thinking, there is no question that every individual has a unique value.
WAS THERE AN “A-HA” MOMENT WHEN YOU DECIDED YOU WANTED TO PURSUE A LEGAL CAREER THAT WOULD HELP ANIMALS?
I got to visit Tanzania and go on a safari where I slept in a tent on the Serengeti. I remember seeing elephants in the wild for the first time—there were such rich emotions, the younger elephants were playing and filled with curiosity. The elders looked down with affection and sometimes annoyance. All of them large, healthy, with giant tusks. They were not the same type of animals I remember as a young child at the zoo. I have not been to a zoo since that time. The contrast of an elephant with its family in the wild and those I had seen trapped in a foreign place, pacing behind a fence for humans’ enjoyment, sticks with me. I knew then that something was broken about humans’ relationship with animals, and I wanted to join those working to build a more respectful view of non-human animals.
The desire to practice law came later. I was in college and unsure about a career. I tried a pre-law class despite warnings against it. I was normally the student who sits in the back silently, but here I did not have that choice. The professor called at random on students, pushing back on them to expose flaws in their answers. I was drawn to the idea that there may be a place where logic and sound arguments can matter more than status or power. It appealed to the way I naturally think through problems. That is when I realized my role in fighting for the environment and animals was through the law.
WHAT DO FOA’S MEMBERS BRING TO YOUR LEGAL WORK?
The law and arguments do not work in a vacuum but depend on the people on the ground too. The first real case I got to work on, while I was still in law school, was in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals advocating for the reintroduction of wolves into Rocky Mountain National Park. I spent months preparing for the argument, listening to the professor’s legal advice and rehearsing my arguments. However, the night before my argument I put the briefs aside and went back to look at comments the public submitted on the proposal. One person quoted Aldo Leopold, whose direct experience changed his views that were once in favor of hunting wolves, “But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
The imagery stuck with me. To this day, I continue the tradition by rereading comments and declarations of Friends of Animals’ members before an oral argument. These are people who understand the rich emotions and importance of the individual animals we are advocating for. We have members who recall remarkable moments when they watched a mare give birth to her foal in the wild or a stallion risk his life to protect the band. We had another member in Zimbabwe who recounted the times he risked his own life to save elephants and rhinos from poaching and witnessed the devastation caused by trophy hunting firsthand. These experiences remind me of what Friends of Animals is working for, and nothing is more energizing and motivating