Image: John Watson

The lawyer fighting for chickens’ rights

Alene Anello, founder of Legal Impact for Chickens, wants to shut down America’s cruel factory farms
November 3, 2022

Alene Anello wears her burden lightly, but what a burden it is. The gregarious lawyer leads a tiny charitable operation that fights for the rights of the hundreds of millions of chickens that languish in the hellish conditions of America’s factory farms.

I first met Anello, 34, in San Francisco in July. As we sipped oat milk lattes, she told me how she had left a flourishing but conventional law career—a Harvard doctorate followed by a year clerking for a federal judge—to defend the animals we treat more cruelly than any other. Her organisation, Legal Impact for Chickens, had just filed a lawsuit against a group of Costco executives. The suit was brought on behalf of Costco’s shareholders; it alleges that the executives broke state laws by leaving their chickens to die without food, water or care. A hearing now approaches.

When I catch up with Anello again over a transatlantic phone call, she is preparing to speak at Washington State Court. The stakes are high: millions of chickens will be affected by the outcome. Anello feels nervous, she admits, but also excited. “When I’ve done an oral argument,” she tells me, “I’m always exhilarated. And I think it’ll make it easier that I really believe in what I’m saying.”

The public believes in it too, she says. In 2018, Californians voted by a considerable margin to tighten laws against gestation crates, which encase breeding sows so tightly that they cannot turn around, and battery cages, which imprison hens in similarly confined spaces. “As far as I’m aware, whenever an animal welfare initiative has been on the ballot in a US state, the public always votes for it. The public wants animals to be treated better in factory farms.”

Some polls go even further and suggest Americans want a ban on slaughterhouses altogether. But this doesn’t mean they want to stop eating meat, Anello says; as is often the case with animal rights, we hold one view (“I’d never eat my sensitive, intelligent dog…”) that contradicts another (“…but I could murder a bacon sandwich”). But, Anello says, “I think those poll results suggest people don’t like the idea of animal suffering.”

Whenever animal welfare has been on the ballot in a US state, the public always votes for it

Legal Impact for Chickens was founded only last year. Next month’s hearing will be its first. Her four-strong team has high hopes. Their strategy, for now, is to find fissures in American corporate law that allow third parties to intervene on behalf of the animals caught up in factory farming. Their dream is that it will catch on elsewhere. “I would love to inspire other people to see what their country’s laws say about the treatment of animals, and then see if those laws are being followed on factory farms,” Anello says. “There are usually some ways of holding somebody accountable for breaking the law.”

Factory-farmed animals in Britain get a slightly less raw deal than they do in other countries, but standards are still far lower than consumers might want to believe. Of the 1.1bn chickens we slaughtered last year, around 95 per cent were factory farmed. These chickens often occupy floor space as small as an A4 sheet of paper.

Concerned consumers, says Anello, should look at what food labels actually mean. (“Free range” demarcations say very little about welfare—“organic” is a more meaningful mark of quality.) “Look up UK factory farm investigations on YouTube,” Anello says, “and just watch for 60 seconds. It’ll be hard to watch for more than that because it’ll probably be really upsetting.”

Anello’s motivation comes partly from having kept two cockatiel birds, Conrad and Zeke, as pets. To her great sorrow, they died last year after more than 20 years in her care. Their legacy could be to improve the lot of billions of other birds.