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Designed by Lara Witt

When Joyce Tischler co-founded the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in 1979, her initial motivation was a deep respect for animals and a desire to protect them by establishing their legal rights. In its 44-year existence, the organization has fought for regulations of commercial dog breeders, shut down inhumane zoological parks, and championed animal cruelty cases across the country. The organization’s net assets reached nearly $20 million in 2021. But while the organization has a stellar reputation in the animal rights world, former employees say the California-based nonprofit has not delivered that same care and respect to its workforce. 

Despite its mission to improve the living and working conditions for animals, former employees say management at ALDF engaged in union-busting tactics while perpetuating a transphobic, racist, and retaliatory work culture that undermined the organization’s mission and pandered to conservative donors. 

Tischler left the organization in 2019 to be a professor of animal law at Lewis and Clark Law School and handed it over to then-Executive Director Stephen Wells. Not long after Wells took over, complaints mounted about a toxic work culture with long hours extending into holidays, leading to a high turnover rate. Allegations of microaggressions and outright racism and transphobia also continued to mount.

Race, gender, and politics at ALDF

Dylan, a transgender former employee who requested to use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation, worked as a litigation paralegal at ALDF from April 2020 to December 2020. On their first day on the job, they said they asked their manager if they should use pronouns in their email signature to “make it easier for people to work with them.” Out of the nine months that Dylan spent working at ALDF, six months were spent communicating back and forth with their manager, deliberating the decision. Dylan said Communications Director Elizabeth Putsche was particularly opposed to the idea. Dylan said their manager ultimately told them verbally that “anyone who [lists their pronouns in an email signature] might be fired.” 

An ALDF spokesperson told Prism that staff were asked to keep their current email signatures until a new email signature policy was completed and new instructions were issued. The organization said they had been working with DEI and gender consultant Breeze Harper for two months to work on developing the policy, among other issues.

“During that period, the organization’s Communications Director was tasked with relaying the request for staff who were eager to make the change to their signatures to wait,” an ALDF spokesperson wrote in a statement to Prism. “While it’s possible that this instruction was misconstrued, it’s not accurate to say that this staff person was ‘opposed’ to this change, and it’s absolutely not the case that anyone was threatened. We don’t believe this constitutes transphobia.” 

Dylan confirms that the organization retained consultants after they voiced concerns but recalls feeling like their supervisor could just fire them without warning. In one situation, Dylan said their manager insinuated they would be fired during a meeting after litigation staff changed their email signatures in protest because of the refusal to allow pronouns. Other staffers at ALDF at the time also confirm that they changed their email signature blocks to include pronouns in solidarity with trans and nonbinary employees. Shortly after, Putsche sent an email emphasizing that they had to standardize their signature blocks and laid out the formatting requirements, which did not provide for pronouns. ALDF’s current policy allows for the optional inclusion of pronouns.

Dylan also said there were conversations among management about buying surveillance technology to make sure that staff was working full time. An anonymous source who had a managerial position at the time and was privy to these conversations confirmed that management was concerned with the amount of time workers were spending on the union campaign and suggested purchasing surveillance equipment to monitor their hours, but the purchase was never made. 

“I was the first out trans person that worked there,” Dylan said. “They really weren’t a comfortable or safe space for trans people and didn’t know how to work with that … There was this big fear that if you spoke out that you’d be fired. And you couldn’t do anything about that.”

A month after Dylan started at the organization, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. As a racial reckoning gripped the country, the organization released a statement on Facebook that compared “excessive force” against animals to police force against “human victims,” never once using the word “Black” or acknowledging the history of racism or white supremacism embedded in the animal rights movement.  

The animal advocacy movement is fueled by nonprofit organizations, which are overwhelmingly white. Eighty-two percent of all nonprofit employees in 2017 were white, and only 10% were  Black. In the animal advocacy world, 83% are white. Mostly white women also run animal shelters, and 75% of animal cruelty investigators are white. The numbers at ALDF tell a similar story. Sixty-two percent of employees at ALDF are white, while 16% are Latinx, and 12% are Black.

People were psychologically abused, emotionally abused, and I saw that with everyone.

BIPOC former ALDF employee

“We are relentlessly nonpartisan, and in the Trump era, that has been a bitter pill for some of our staff to follow,” Wells said in a January 2021 interview. “It does not serve animals for us to be slamming the door in the face of people whose other ideas we disagree with.”

Akisha Townsend Eaton, a BIPOC former employee, said she was disappointed by Wells’ use of the term “relentlessly nonpartisan.” 

“That was unfortunate to conflate concern over racial justice issues with a political party or that being inherently political,” Eaton said. “There seemed to be every question about whether an animal rights organization’s affiliation with the racial justice movement would isolate supporters, but there really seemed to be little question about how such a public statement like that would impact BIPOC staff, prospective staff, or even supporters, either in their relationship with the Animal Legal Defense Fund or in their personal lives.”

Another BIPOC former employee said when she expressed a desire to make a public statement about the importance of supporting Black Lives Matter, Wells told her that other non-white employees disagreed with her. This same former employee also alleges that she was told by her manager in the winter of 2021 that she was in jeopardy of being fired for being on the union’s organizing committee.

“I was also treated horribly,” she said. “People were psychologically abused, emotionally abused, and I saw that with everyone.”

Wells did not respond to Prism’s request for comment. An ALDF spokesperson told Prism that they were unaware of this allegation and declined to comment since Wells is no longer with the organization.

“We do not believe that anyone was told they were in jeopardy of being fired for being on the union’s organizing committee; this was never reported, and the employee’s manager has denied this allegation after it was raised in your reporting,” an ALDF spokesperson wrote in a statement.

During what a former employee called an “anti-union meeting” in February 2021, ALDF Communications Director Putsche boasted about the organization’s ability to attract right-wing supporters.  

“We have a significant amount of supporters that are donating to ALDF that do not donate to other organizations because they’re seen as left organizations, or they’re seen as extreme,” Putsche said in a meeting. “But we’re seen as very rational because of how we positioned ourselves and how we present ourselves. So that is a very important part of our brand, to make sure that we are able to maintain that wider donor base and that wider supporter base that are able to take action when we need them to.”

During the same staff meeting in February 2021 that Putsche ran, she admitted to removing “climate change” from email communications with the organization’s supporter base after people unsubscribed from the newsletter.

“About a year ago, we sent out an email that had ‘climate change’ in it,” said Putsche in the same meeting. “We received a lot of feedback on that, unpleasant feedback. People removed us from their wills, they said they were going to stop donating, they said we were a political pawn, climate change isn’t real, and a lot of people unsubscribed … [So] we did take out the inflammatory ‘climate change’ that was the trigger to set off some of our supporters … [Separating climate and change] got no blowback, raised money, fabulous.”

An ALDF spokesperson told Prism that the conversation did take place, “but reflected a genuine attempt internally at addressing donors’ reactions to [their] communications and the ways in which [they] presented our work … We went on in subsequent communications to exchange simply name-checking ‘climate change’ as part of a list of threats to animals to instead giving more detailed examples of the impacts of the changing climate and the direct impact it is having on animals and their habitats.”

A former staffer who requested to remain anonymous said that for an organization with more than 300,000 supporters that expands internationally, the argument that ALDF can’t build the same kind of supporter base without certain political, ideological supporters is a fallacy.

According to sources, as a result of the dissatisfaction with messaging around race, gender, and sexuality, ALDF hired Harper, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, in the fall of 2020 to lead a series of training sessions and to complete an audit of the organization. According to sources, Harper’s contract was never fulfilled; Harper declined Prism’s request for an interview due to a nondisclosure agreement she signed with the organization. Dylan exited the organization by December 2020.

“I think the organizers have every good intention around [diversity, equity, and inclusion], and allies are very much needed,” Eaton wrote in an email on Feb. 25, 2021. “Because I can’t blend in like some, the consequences of our public statements around these issues have the potential to have an even more profound and lasting impact on me. Negative outcomes also reinforce a false narrative that diversity and inclusion aren’t worth the effort or are risky. How do I know this? I’ve been there countless times by virtue of being ‘the only’ or ‘one of a few’ for almost four decades.”

There’s this huge culture of silence. If you’re speaking up, you’re hurting the animals pretty much.

Dylan

Eaton, who said she was neutral on the union since she was a relatively new employee when the campaign started, was also critical of the union’s handling of DEIJ issues, particularly in the media. According to Eaton, white employees gave anonymous interviews about racism at ALDF without qualifying that they were white—thereby making some think that BIPOC employees had made these statements.

“I never took a position in support of or in opposition to the union and voiced criticism of both sides. Those comments [referenced in the Feb. 25 email] about public statements and negative outcomes were directed primarily at the union, not Steve (though I did express disappointment about his comments, too),” said Eaton. “My main critique of the union at ALDF with respect to DEIJ was that it was not racially representative enough to come up with meaningful objectives centered on the actual experiences of BIPOC employees.  It was kind of akin to a group of white cis men planning goals and objectives for women’s equity and meeting with an opposing group of cis white men to discuss those goals, hoping to come to a consensus on something that had no bearing on their own experiences.” 

Rampant union-busting and pay inequities

Former employees say ALDF engaged in relentless union-busting that left them beleaguered and suspicious of management’s true interests in protecting the rights of both animals and humans. A union organizing committee formed in November 2020, and the bargaining unit signed cards Dec. 14, 2020, when a majority of the 70 or so staff members at the ALDF signed up to form ALDF United. The union is affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, which represents nonprofit workers. 

ALDF United asked management for voluntary recognition of the union. They filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board on Dec. 28, 2020, after Wells told the staff during an all-staff meeting that management would not recognize the union. 

“There’s this huge culture of silence,” Dylan said. “If you’re speaking up, you’re hurting the animals pretty much. It’s kind of like an exploitation tool … That’s an issue that you see in the nonprofit-industrial complex, largely, but it’s so heightened in the [animal rights] movement.” 

An ALDF spokesperson confirmed that ALDF leadership agreed to a secret ballot election. Wells communicated the choice to workers, and the spokesperson says it “was not intended to interfere with or ignore our employees’ desire to seek union representation. Rather, it was intended to allow for a fair and anonymous process for employees to select a workplace representative.” While the secret ballot allowed workers to remain anonymous in how they voted, management’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union created an additional hurdle for ALDF United.

Carter Dillard, who worked at ALDF for 11 years as the director of litigation and then a senior policy adviser, recalls that the staff was fully remote by the time the union cards dropped. Dillard said he realized he never had a realistic sense of what the working conditions were like for the employees as a manager. 

“I believe that a detailed analysis could show that management spent more resources opposing the union over the past several years than developing policies that effectively help animals,” wrote Dillard in a statement. “Urge them, and their funders, to factor in family and birth equity policies—ask them what they are doing about the daily creation of actual human and nonhuman relationships. You end up with management having promoted a totally unfair and anthropocentric system of top-down coercion rather than bottom-up empowerment as described in Newsweek, one that on balance may do more harm than good to vulnerable humans and nonhumans, is exacerbating the climate crisis, and would be undoing the claims the organization makes.”

An anonymous source recalls there was a special unit, called a “scrum,” created to handle union issues. The source was not part of the scrum, but he recalls multiple phone calls where they discussed techniques to delay the unionization process long enough to get a decertification.

ALDF’s ambiguous stance on diversity and their anti-union public position were representative of internal operations and pay inequities. According to a former ALDF employee, their starting salary was not on par with any other attorney they had with commensurate 10 years of experience. They shared with Prism that management told them it was based on a geographic compensation scale in which staffers who live in a rural area make less.

“This is something that I wish the union had brought up as well because pay was not an issue with them,” they said. “I think everybody thought that they were being well compensated, but it was geography-based. So if you lived in California, you would get a higher salary than if you lived in Nebraska because the cost of living was lower, but anybody who is focused on equity knows that there are other factors that come into play with compensation, and just the fact that you’ve got someone who has that many years of experience, who happens to be BIPOC, that should be a red flag that should come up when we’re talking about equitable policies and ensuring that everybody has an opportunity to succeed and to advance and to thrive.”

They said there is currently an effort at ALDF to increase diversity, but they’ve left equity and inclusion by the wayside.

“I feel like those of us who were staff of color, there were only like, really two or three of us,” Eaton said. “I feel like we had the same sentiment in terms of just not feeling a part of any side and just being kind of on an island.”

Eaton would like to see an internal review of the policies and procedures that could impact BIPOC staff with more of a focus on equity and inclusion and not just diversity. 

A former staffer who left in 2019 and requested to remain anonymous said it was a dysfunctional organization—similar to other nonprofits in the animal rights world—stemming from a toxic work environment that Wells and two other senior managers cultivated.

“It was disgusting to work there, and it was taking a toll on my physical and my mental health,” they said. “There’s no respect for animals. There’s no respect for people. The turnover there was unbelievable. People just couldn’t tolerate it, and Steve was really at the helm of all of it.”

I cried every night. I really got emotional because I’m like, I’m so invested in this organization. But I just can’t make anything right. I can’t make management right. I just can’t do anything right. I just have to leave.

Former ALDF employee

ALDF retained Ogletree Deakins, a law firm known for representing management in union organizing disputes, and engaged in what former staffers say was a relentless union-busting campaign, involving captive audience meetings (a mandatory meeting during working hours with the purpose of discouraging employees from joining a union) and threatening to fire workers. From July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, ALDF’s IRS Form 990 documents list Ogletree Deakins as being compensated $317,146. Documents from previous years do not list the legal team, despite 990 forms that support the organization having already hired them in 2020 when the union drive began.

In a Dec. 23, 2021, email exchange between Ogletree Deakins attorney Matthew J. Kelley, ALDF Litigation Program Director Anthony Eliseuson, and ALDF Chief Operating Officer Janiec Gutierrez, Kelley advised that depending on the geographic location of the employee, requiring workers to attend captive audience meetings could be legal so long as disciplinary action is not taken against those who don’t attend.

“In the future we will have captive audience meetings and we will need to be cognizant of state specific laws on that issue,” Kelley wrote. In a separate email, he offered, “If you tell me the state of the person asking, we can make it mandatory for most of our employees and tell them that individually.”

One former staffer who also requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation was not part of the union drive because she was not eligible. Yet, she said she felt emotionally worn out by the toxic and fearful environment management created.

“They were really clever in instilling an environment of fear,” she said. “I just felt the tension, and it was so manipulative … It was just like, mentally exhausting.”

This staffer recalls being overworked and mentally exhausted as part of an organization that did not value her emotional investment or allow her to take vacation days because of understaffing.

“That’s what really got me. I cried every night,” she said. “I really got emotional because I’m like, I’m so invested in this organization. But I just can’t make anything right. I can’t make management right. I just can’t do anything right. I just have to leave.”

An ALDF spokesperson told Prism that the organization “is actively working to live up to [their] values and build an organization free from racism, anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment, and toxic behavior. We are striving to be our best, and to grow an organization that is inclusive and just.”

The spokesperson added that now that the board is aware of the allegations, they urge current and past employees to come forward to senior leadership, human resources, and the organization’s anonymous hotline so that they can review and investigate. 

“These allegations are extremely concerning to us, and any form of bullying or discriminatory behavior will not be tolerated at ALDF.”

ALDF staff won their union election in March 2021, and the contract is still being negotiated. Union representatives declined to comment since negotiations for a contract are ongoing.

Allegations against Wells

Wells spent 16 years as the executive director at ALDF, and after tensions continued to mount, former employees and email records shared with Prism say Wells was pushed to leave the organization by board members in early 2023 after an investigation into allegations of bullying, retaliatory behavior, preferential treatment, and legal and compliance mistakes in the fall of 2022. Wells did not respond to requests by Prism to comment on the allegations.

“The Board of Directors mutually agreed to this decision and welcomed the transition to new leadership after Steve’s long tenure as Executive Director and with the organization,” an ALDF person wrote in a statement to Prism. “Steve Wells was not pushed to leave based on an investigation, or based on allegations of bullying or retaliatory behavior … We are very proud of what ALDF achieved under Steve’s leadership.”

Tischler and other internal documents shared with Prism confirm the existence of a board investigation into Wells’ behavior.

“As far as I know, the board investigated the matter, and at the end of the day, Steve was still the CEO, so I assume it was resolved in his favor,” Tischler said. 

An anonymous former staffer recounts that she reported Wells to the board of directors around February 2016 for 23 alleged legal and/or policy violations, including unintentionally deleting documents in legal cases, bullying, and causing fear in his employees, and an internal investigation was done. According to her, his annual review to the board did not include information from staff, allowing him to cover up any discontent or issues.

If donors knew where their dollars went, they would be horrified and disgusted.

Patricia Jones

An employee filed another formal human resources bullying, harassment, and intimidation complaint against Wells in February 2021 after he sent an email on Feb. 4 implying that supporting the union went against the organization’s mission.

“It felt to me like a threat to my job because believing in the mission is a requirement of working there,” the former employee said. 

The employee eventually retracted their complaint because they were concerned that speaking to human resources about issues concerning staff treatment by members of the executive or leadership teams would have no impact.

In October 2022, former employees voiced concerns about the organization, its management, and their experiences while working by sending anonymous statements and a demand letter to the board. 

The 2022 letter references an unsent 2020 letter that states “‘[t]he Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) collaborates with the police,’ but also is ‘guided by our belief that justice must be available to all.’ These paradoxical positions add gravity to our actions—or lack thereof—in this moment.’; ‘ALDF’s failure to actualize anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion also implicates its internal operations. ALDF must reckon with a workplace culture and existing policies that enable racism. Employees—including members the Executive and Leadership Teams—must acknowledge and address their own racism and facilitate, actively and intentionally, the building of an anti-racist culture at work.’; ‘We cannot hope to remain relevant, effective, and credible as an organization and as a movement if we are willfully blind to racism. By failing to be anti-racist, diverse, equitable, and inclusive, we are hurting our clients, the animals, by failing to be as effective as we could and should be.’”

After the 2022 letter was sent to the board, Wells temporarily left the organization in October 2022 for what the board referred to publicly as a sabbatical. That same month, Jayna Sisbarro, ALDF’s philanthropy manager for the Eastern region, sent an email to the development staff warning them not to notify donors of Wells’ sabbatical because it could be “perceived as negative.” In the fall of 2022, the board retained the prominent law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP to investigate the allegations against Wells. On March 23, 2023, Wells officially stepped down as executive director and CEO, writing on Facebook that he “made the very difficult decision to depart” from ALDF. ALDF wished him a “happy retirement” on Twitter that same day. 

Nicole Rawling, who worked as the deputy director at ALDF from 2015 to 2016, hopes that when the board hires a new CEO, they will hire an attorney with business experience who is held accountable by the board of directors.

“I think number one, the board needs to choose [an] executive director who has legal experience and experience running nonprofits and has at least a strong personality or experience in cleaning up an organization and coming in when there’s been trouble,” she said. 

When Patricia Jones, a former communications director at ALDF, learned Wells had left the organization, she said she was “happy to hear the board fired him” and was hopeful it would be the first step in steering the organization in the right direction.

“It was the most toxic dysfunctional organization I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve worked with toxic dysfunctional organizations,” Jones said. “If donors knew where their dollars went, they would be horrified and disgusted. Steve was never in the office … It’s the entire leadership that needs to go. They’re entrenched in their dysfunction. They’re all paid extremely well, and it’s so sad because I don’t even know what they do anymore … They should be shut down. Truthfully, I don’t know what they do.”

In June 2023, sources say ALDF internally announced that Chris Green, the former executive director of Harvard Law School’s Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program and the former ALDF legislative affairs program director, would be the new CEO. Rawling is optimistic that he’ll be able to set ALDF’s strategy for the future. Green was officially announced as the new executive director on June 22. 

Looking at ALDF’s future, Dylan says ALDF should implement a new kind of management structure. This includes larger organizational transparency, including staff as board members, looking into a cooperative worker-owned nonprofit, and adding 360 reviews and accountability measures to protect the workers. They also suggest increasing benefits to include sabbaticals and a four-day workweek. 

“A lot of these nonprofits are kind of money-making machines. They don’t actually create any impactful change. They just keep the donor money in and try to create and kind of stabilize that kind of rent-seeking behavior,” they said. “That’s what needs to change to make this a more sustainable space to work in.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...