A staunch fighter of animal cruelty, Vandhana Bala is Mercy For Animals’ senior vice president of programs and general counsel. Born and raised in New York, Vandhana spent two years studying in India and went to law school at Indiana University.
Vandhana left law for five years to work as a vet tech. When she came back to practicing law, she started her own firm and volunteered her expertise to MFA, eventually becoming the first attorney on staff. Not only does Vandhana fight for animals wherever she can; she oversees a team of 11 attorneys worldwide.
We recently sat down with Vandhana to discuss her activism and animal rights law.
1. How long have you been vegan and why did you make the switch?
I’ve been vegan for almost eight years. Despite growing up in a primarily vegetarian household, I consumed animal products until my early 20s. I became a vegetarian while in law school because I did not want to harm animals. Like many, I did not realize the immense suffering that hens, cows, and calves endure in the egg and dairy industries. It was an undercover video of the dairy industry—in particular, the anguished cries of a mother cow grieving over the loss of her baby—that made me realize that the only way to prevent cruelty to farmed animals was by adopting a vegan diet.
2. Why did you decide to work in animal law?
I first started learning about animal rights in law school. But at the time, I didn’t think I’d ever work in this field. After five years of private practice, I became disillusioned with the law and so I left it altogether and started learning to be a veterinary technician. I really loved doing hands-on work with animals; it was incredibly rewarding. After five years of doing that, I decided to return to the law, and it was then that I realized the only thing I wanted to do with my law degree was help animals. I couldn’t think of anything more meaningful or fulfilling.
3. What do you think is your greatest victory for animals?
Working with law enforcement to secure the first-ever felony conviction for cruelty to factory-farmed turkeys. MFA had released its first Butterball turkey factory farm investigation and documented multiple Butterball workers viciously beating, kicking, and torturing turkeys. I worked very closely with the district attorney’s office on that case, which brought criminal animal cruelty charges against several workers. This conviction was historic because poultry are completely neglected under the law. The only federal law governing the treatment of animals at slaughter excludes birds, who make up 98 percent of the land animals killed for food each year in this country. So to have a district attorney press for felony-level criminal charges for abusing a turkey was groundbreaking. This set the stage for MFA’s immense success in working with the authorities to ensure that people who abuse farmed animals are held accountable.
4. Has an animal you’ve met ever made an enormous impact on your life?
Three years ago, Nathan and I traveled to India and went to slaughterhouses, chicken markets, and dairy farms. The animal cruelty and suffering I saw there continue to haunt me. We went to a slaughterhouse near Mumbai late one afternoon. The slaughterhouse was closed that day, but people had brought their animals from near and far to be killed the next day. We went into one area with about a dozen goats in a dark pen. We went in and saw that these animals didn’t have any food or water. Most of them were lying down trying to sleep. But one curious goat came up to me and immediately started rubbing his head on my legs, trying to nuzzle me. He followed me as I walked around the pen.
I didn’t know how long he had traveled to this slaughterhouse, how long he had been there, and when he had last been given food or water. Yet there he was: happy, playful, trusting, and so friendly to me, a complete stranger. He’d probably never had any extended interactions with humans, but that didn’t seem to dampen his spirits at all. He just wanted kindness and affection. And to play! I stayed and played with him for as long as I could. I kissed him and hugged him. I knew he was going to be killed the next morning and it broke my heart.
Every single animal who is slaughtered for food is just like him. They don’t want to die. They just want some kindness and affection, a little compassion. I felt so undeserving of his love and trust, because there wasn’t anything I could do to stop him from being killed the next day. But the memory of him continues to burn bright in my mind and strengthen my resolve to do everything I can to put an end to factory farming.
5. What is one thing you’d like people to know about farmed animal laws?
They are totally inadequate. The laws intended to protect animals are generally pretty weak to begin with and most of these laws are geared toward protecting dogs and cats. Of course, dogs and cats deserve lives free from abuse. But so do pigs, cows, chickens, and fish. Yet most countries’ animal protection laws ignore the fact that farmed animals are living, sentient beings, highly intelligent and capable of experiencing pain and fear. And the laws utterly fail to protect these animals from lives of abject misery, suffering, and torture.
Instead, lawmakers bow again and again to the immense power and influence of the multibillion-dollar animal agriculture industry, which cares for little else than its bottom line. The animal agriculture industry is so influential that what would be illegal if done to a dog or cat is considered legal in the name of food production. The level of corruption between government and industry is sickening. And because of this, billions of animals are forced to endure lives so hellish and brutal, it's hard to even fathom.
But laws can change, and we are changing them. MFA is on the front lines, fighting hard to improve laws protecting farmed animals in countries around the world. We’re making great strides already in the U.S. and Mexico. And we couldn’t do it without MFA’s incredible supporters, who take action and make their voices heard loud and clear. Because of all the compassionate people out there supporting our efforts, change is happening!
6. What can people do locally to help farmed animals?
One of the most effective things people can do for farmed animals is to get active politically. Politicians care about reelection, and if their constituency is vocal about supporting or opposing certain measures, they will often listen. We’ve advanced so many favorable laws and defeated so many anti-animal laws simply because people called, emailed, and even tweeted their lawmakers. At MFA, we send out action alerts every time an important farmed animal bill is proposed. People can sign up for these alerts on our mailing list. All the successes we’re achieving legislatively are because of the people who speak up for farmed animals.
Sharing our video footage and spreading the word about how animals are treated before they end up on our plates is also incredibly powerful. And of course, the best way to help farmed animals is to stop eating them; in this way, we vote with our dollars.
7. Any words of advice for people who want to become an animal rights attorney?
Do it! Although we’re making progress every day, the situation for farmed animals is still very bleak. They need all the advocates they can get. Many people go to law school to help the underrepresented and the defenseless. I believe that farmed animals are the most abused and exploited beings on Earth and every voice speaking out on their behalf makes a difference.
I’m often asked to mentor and advise younger attorneys, including many of MFA’s legal interns, on how they can use their law degrees to best help farmed animals, and that’s something I really love doing. There are so many possibilities. And not everyone needs to work for an animal protection group to help animals. There are many things every single one of us can do every day to make a difference. The important thing is for people to get active, because for billions of farmed animals around the world, it really is a matter of life and death.
8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MFA has an incredible legal internship program and we also work with a number of pro bono attorneys around the world. Lawyers or law students interested in learning more about farmed animal advocacy should reach out to me. I’d love to get to know you!
To get involved with MFA’s legal internship program, click here.