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LA's Animal Rights Queen Is Trying to Stop the Police from Killing Dogs

Jill Ryther has an impressive activist résumé, but her main focus right now is to get the LAPD to admit that it shoots dogs too often and needs to train its officers on how to better handle pets.
October 13, 2014, 10:40pm

Vegan Oktoberfest in Santa Monica. Photo by the author

On October 4, Vegan Oktoberfest came to the Santa Monica, California, waterfront. It had all the traditional elements of the German festival—lederhosen, sausage, beer, musical performances—but the meat didn’t contain animal products and one of the musicians was the activist rapper Vegan Boss. A little nontraditional, sure, but those touches were only fitting given that all the proceeds went to Jill Ryther’s nonprofit Expand Animal Rights Now (EARN).

Ryther has an impressive activist résumé—a stint working in Los Angeles’s Hardcore Gang Division, some time alongside renowned dolphin activist Ric O’Barry in Japan, lawsuits against corporate giants Costco and PetSmart—but mostly, she’s known for trying to curb the Los Angeles Police Department’s tendency to shoot dogs.

It’s difficult to estimate how many canines get shot by the cops—partly because police departments aren’t interested in publicizing that information—but it happens often enough that there have been calls to train officers to better deal with pets they encounter, and to penalize cops who kill animals for little reason.

I caught up with Ryther the day after Vegan Oktoberfest on the phone to learn more about the festival and her experience in dealing with the LAPD.

VICE: So, how did Vegan Oktoberfest come to be?
Jill Ryther: It was my partner David [Edward Burke’s] idea, actually.  We had been having a discussion about how in the vegan community it's like there are two types of events: events that cater so much toward vegans that non-vegans don't want to come, and events that are so meat-heavy—like traditional Oktoberfest—that vegans are discouraged from coming.  So we were like, "Let's bring them together. Let's have a Vegan Oktoberfest to make it really lively and accessible and authentic, so that everybody wants to come. Let's make sure we have good food to get the best of both worlds and have a good time and have a clear conscience."

How did you stumble upon some of the cases involving police brutality against animals?
They really found me. I am the leading animal rights attorney in LA right now, so if anyone looks up "animal rights attorney," it's going to be my office. And so I started getting phone calls from people who had their dogs shot by police.

So I looked into it a little further and I was horrified at the numbers, how often it happens, and I was contacted by the guardian of Chico Blue—which was a pretty notable case we just settled—and that case got a lot of attention and really put us on the map for handling these types of cases. My office is just inundated with people who have animals who have been shot by police. We just took on another case where this woman’s two dogs—one of them was only 35 pounds—were both shot in her front yard. It's horrible. It's a huge problem, and there aren’t a lot of attorneys fighting it, and the police are getting away with it, so we are making that our top priority right now.

Like this dog, Chico Blue was a pit bull. Photo via Flickr user blgrssby

So how do the police handle this internally?
It's always the same story. It's always, "The dog was aggressive and the officer was in fear for his life." It doesn't matter if they were on a leash; it doesn't matter if they were in a fenced-in yard. It's always the same story. We have been lucky to work with, recently, some officers and some precincts who are interested in making some positive changes. I think a lot of it is because of the media attention it's getting.

In the most recent case, we actually worked with the officers and had them undergo training. We flew in a trainer and spent a half a day with them and had them work with the dog expert in an effort to teach them dog behavior. We've been well received by some, but for the most part I think internally it's sort of like, "Oh, it's just a dog. The dog was aggressive. Too bad." The officer gets a slap on the wrist, and there's not much more than that. Sometimes I don't even think they get a slap on the wrist, to be honest.

With Chico Blue, what happened with the officer?
He didn't lose pay as far as I know. I mean, he was forced to undergo the training that we made him go through, but we forced him to do that as a part of the case. I don't even think he would have had to do that. I mean I know he didn't lose his job.

Have you faced any pushback from the precincts?
Yeah. Tons. Officers for the most part don't want you to tell them how to do their jobs, and they're certainly not quick to stand up and say, "We made a mistake." Some officers have been willing to work with us, because they see that we really are trying to give them tools so that this doesn't keep happening. Like, it doesn't look good for you to keep shooting dogs. If the officers give us a chance, we end up building a good relationship, but usually it's like the door slams. They don't want to touch it. They don't want to even admit that they shoot dogs.

Do you think widespread access to technology—like video cameras—has helped address this problem?
Yes. I think cops are realizing that what they are doing is going to be recorded. I think that's helped us in our cases to put pressure on different precincts to say, "Look—work with us, because we want to give you training so this doesn't keep happening."

To learn more, visit the Expand Animal Rights Now website here.