Caitlin Hawks: From Protesting With a ‘Tiger’ to Taking Down a ‘Tiger King’

An old photo of Caitlin Hawks as a child with brown hair holds a beige cat, JT, in her lap on a plush chair.
Here I am sitting with J.T., a feline companion I lived with as a child. He was a very friendly guy who used to “kiss” me like a dog, albeit with a far more sandpapery tongue.

I was born an animal advocate. Even though I grew up in a rural community in Idaho—there was a slaughterhouse right next to the sole stoplight in town—by the age of 4, I knew I didn’t want to eat animals. We were having cube steak for dinner when I asked my mom where it came from. After she told me, I sat at the table for what seemed like hours, refusing to eat. Not long afterward, I told my parents I wanted to go vegetarian. They said I had to wait until I could cook for myself. I stopped eating meat when I was 11.

Passion Prevails

In those intervening years, my desire to help animals never dimmed. When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I wrote an angry letter to TV news anchor Ted Koppel after he made comments on air in favor of wolf “culls.”

I joined PETA in elementary school. My parents had given me a book that contained a directory of animal protection groups, and when I read the description about PETA, I asked my dad to send in a check for my $16 membership fee. My dad used to hunt and fish and even owned a business that made shoes and bags out of deerskin. I’m pretty sure he had no idea what I’d signed up for.

A Legal Eagle Takes Flight

In college, I founded a campus animal rights group that drew on PETA for all sorts of resources. I went vegan, and my mom soon followed suit. Today, even my dad—the former hunter—is mostly vegan.

In 2003, I interned for PETA and participated in circus protests. My job was to wear a body-screen TV showing how animals are abused, while another campaigner, painted as a tiger, sat in a cage.

As much as I love grassroots activism, I felt driven to make an impact in another way: I went to law school specifically to become an animal rights lawyer. I attended the University of California–Los Angeles because it had just received a million-dollar grant from Bob Barker for the study of animal law. I continued helping animals however I could. I got a legal externship in the Animal Protection Unit for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and after graduation, I did pro bono work for animals.

But my heart was set on working for the PETA Foundation, and now I help lead the most effective, precedent-setting animal rights litigation team in the world.

An image of Caitlin Hawks in front of a red background.

From Touring With PETA’s ‘Tiger’ to Taking Down a ‘Tiger King’

PETA Foundation lawyers are redefining and expanding how the law considers animals and applying it in creative ways to secure and protect their rights. One way we’re achieving this is by filing lawsuits against dismal roadside zoos that violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

My team and I helped dethrone Tiger King villain Tim Stark when we won a lawsuit establishing the first-ever federal precedent holding that prematurely separating tigers and lions from their mothers, declawing them, or using them in public encounters violates the ESA.

My team is also taking on “humane washing,” and our landmark lawsuit against Nellie’s Free Range Eggs—whose packaging depicted hens enjoying lush, grassy fields—put egg sellers on notice: Even if they disingenuously advertise their eggs as “free-range,” they can’t deceptively depict hens frolicking outdoors with impunity.

Another successful lawsuit resulted in the transfer of three big cats, including one named Cheyenne (shown below), to an accredited sanctuary in Colorado and secured a ruling prohibiting Tri-State Zoological Park, the roadside zoo where they languished for many years, from owning or possessing endangered or threatened species.

A side-by-side image composite of a tiger, behind bars in a roadside zoo and looking healthy in the sanctuary she was transferred to.
Cheyenne, before and after being transferred to a sanctuary from a roadside zoo.

Cheyenne, before and after being transferred to a sanctuary from a roadside zoo.I’ve come a long way since I was that little girl in Idaho, but one thing hasn’t changed: I’ve never wavered in my belief that all animals have rights.

Written by Caitlin Hawks, General Counsel – Litigation. Originally published in 2022’s second edition of  PETA Global, a quarterly magazine sent to PETA members. Become a member today to get the print edition, or start reading online now for free!

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