Published: 06th March 2021
Meet Sahana Ramdas, one of India's fewest Animal Rights lawyers, who is standing up for nature's furry friends
Sahana Ramdas talks about how she decided to pursue animal rights law even though it isn’t a popular area of law
Sahana Ramdas has only been a lawyer for the last few years but only a handful can boast of such an eventful and successful career. Sahana is a wildlife and environmental advocate from Bengaluru and is currently pursuing her LLM from Buffalo School of Law at New York. However, what is most interesting about the young lawyer is her pursuit of Animal Rights Law which is an area that is still in its nascent stage, in fact, she was the first Indian to receive the International Advocates Animal Law LLM Scholarship.
Sahana, who decided to become a lawyer at 14, graduated from University Law College in Bengaluru before winning the Animal Law scholarship. She then went on to graduate cum laude in Global Environment Law in Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, New York. The lawyer even co-authored a Wildlife Crime Enforcement manual to conduct wildlife law enforcement workshops. In this interview, Sahana discusses her journey so far, her love for animals which motivated her to pursue animal law, what society can do better to protect the environment and what her plans for the future are.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey so far?
In a human dominated world, constant disregard for the natural environment and cruelty towards all creatures fueled my desire to become an animal rights lawyer. My relative success in having been able to build a career in advocating animal rights has been a roller coaster ride. I have worked in India for over three years in litigation and animal law advocacy. My legal practice in India has taught me of the vacuums in law enforcement and the pressing need for countries to place animal and environmental law on a higher pedestal. It was my repeated exposure to the limitations of these realms that has imbibed in me a resolve to equip myself with adequate legal education and continue taking a proactive stance against these loopholes and violations. In 2018, I moved to the United States to pursue my higher education in Animal Law.
2. You were the first Indian to receive the International Advocates Animal Law LLM Scholarship. How did that happen?
While completing my law degree, I interned at animal welfare organisations in Bengaluru. My experiences at these organisations only served to highlight the need for better animal welfare enforcement. The heinousness of animal cruelty and the approach taken by municipal authorities in curbing animal population shocked me. I realised that effecting a change required action on multiple fronts. Post such internships, I was constantly on the lookout for senior lawyers who took up similar matters against animal cruelty so that I could learn by working with them. However, I was shocked and disappointed to learn of the dearth of animal law practitioners in India. Over the course of my first year of practice, I realised the need to strengthen my foundation of legal knowledge on Animal Laws, and it was then that I came across the Lewis and Clark LLM programme in Animal Law. However, I was keen on getting some practical experience before applying for master's. To this end, I worked through an extremely competitive selection process that eventually secured me the position of Legal Associate at two of South Asia's largest animal welfare nonprofits simultaneously — Wildlife SOS and Friendicoes SECA. Despite Animal Law being a nascent field, I left a promising commercial litigation practice in my hometown, moved to New Delhi and began working for the two non-profits.
3. What did it feel like to know you were the first?
It felt great to be the first animal advocate to pursue a higher education in animal law. Parallelly, I realised how fortunate I was that I could pursue my love for animals not just as a legal professional but specialise in animal law as well.
4. Why Animal Law?
At an impressionable age, I witnessed ghastly crimes such as people poisoning stray animals that were misperceived as a threat, owners illtreating their pets and other unscrupulous exploitation of animals and the environment. It was my repeated exposure to such senseless cruelty that imbibed in me a resolve to take a proactive stance towards animal protection and environmental conservation.
5. What was the reaction of the people around you when you decided you wanted to pursue animal law?
As a first-generation lawyer, in order to pursue my passion for law and love for animals, I had to make hard but worthwhile career choices. Also, I come from a modest family and have had to be financially independent since the age of nineteen. So, to work as an animal rights advocate, I had to overcome several societal norms, including family pressure to get married. Despite these challenges, I left a promising practice and the comforts of my home to move to Delhi. While this meant pursuing my dreams of working for causes, it also meant financial insecurity and uncertainty of what lies ahead. My personal background has had me question my career choices, time and again. But each time, I have reaffirmed my dedication and desire to help the voiceless and vulnerable sections of the society.
6. You went on to pursue environmental law which is again very fascinating especially in the times that we live in? How has the experience been?
I have grappled with intricacies surrounding animal and environmental conservation politics in India, such as permitting age-old Jallikattu practices, livestock farming, exploiting elephants for religious and commercial practices, etc. Hence, I realised that if animals and nature are to be perceived and treated rightly, the intersection of environmental and animal law policies is crucial to depoliticise these realms. Through the LLM in Environmental Law from Pace Law School, I gained an exhaustive understanding of the interconnected issues, whereby it has helped me advocate for the protection of animals and the environment incisively.
7. Animal and environmental law seem exciting but I’m sure that working for the environment entails risks? Activists and lawyers don’t have it easy in the field, does that scare you?
Working for vulnerable sections of the society often entails risks. Especially in this age where the anthropogenic nature of humans is aided by capitalism, voiceless animals and their natural habitats are often subjected to all forms of exploitation. We see environmental and animal rights defenders often targetted, persecuted and even killed for their advocacy efforts. But that does not derail people like me as we believe the causes are worth striving for and such resistance shows the critical need for us to remain undeterred in our endeavours.
8. So far, have you experienced any gender bias issues in the field?
It was quite challenging to practice animal law in India, where animal law’s impact is not far reaching. Gender bias is a part of the many other challenges women advocates often face in legal practice and the society. However, India is quite progressive when it comes to improving work culture for women. Like India does support work-life balance by granting paid maternity leave to women. This is unlike how rigid and less generous maternity leave policies are in the United States.
9. What are the biggest challenges of pursuing this area of law?
Like I mentioned earlier, enforcing Animal Laws especially is still an overlooked and often ignored aspect of the society. The public is either complacent to animal cruelty or they accommodate cultural and lifestyle practices where animal exploitation is accepted in the society. In fact, most of the countries, including India, often relegate the enforcement of animal and environmental law provisions. The protection of animals and the environment is critical to our overall well-being. Despite this, their protection and conservation are much lesser of a priority. This reflects in the inadequate legislative actions and the lack of enforcement of these two laws. Also, there is an absence of focused legal education programmes in these two disciplines in most of the law universities. I have experienced all of this firsthand throughout my childhood, education and practice.
10. What do you enjoy most about it?
I deeply appreciate the phenomenal work environmental and animal law advocates have been doing. What I enjoy the most is how law and its enlivening applications can be used to influence the society to protect the welfare of all living beings, regardless of the difference in species, race, economic strength. For instance, all the work that is being done by animal and environmental advocates is directly and indirectly promoting peace, harmony and non-violence in the world. Such efforts for the greater good of all often have a far-reaching impact on the society where intergenerational equity is secured as well.
11. Would you recommend animal law to younger lawyers. If you had to give three reasons why it’s a great field, what would they be?
Yes absolutely! Animal law in India is developing in many unique ways where the Honorable courts are slowly recognising animals as sentient beings and their Right to Life. This is the right time for young legal professionals to establish themselves in a field of law that carries a growing significance in its scope and impact. For those who love animals and the environment, they could pursue litigation and provide effective representation to animals and their natural habitats. For those who are interested in entering academia, specialisation in Animal Law could help them impart critical legal education to law students. For those who are interested in changing the existing laws and legal policies, they could influence and advise both lawmakers and policymakers to create watertight laws and effective policies that would in turn collectively protect animals and the environment.
12. As a society, what do we have to be aware of when it comes to the dangers that the animal kingdom faces? How can society do to protect our animals and what about the law should we be spreading awareness about?
It is critical for everybody to understand that global warming, loss of biodiversity and habitat destruction are interconnected. Countries like India are being plagued with severe air pollution and are also facing an impending water crisis to cope with. Sustainable development has become a symbolic gesture and rapid economic growth has become the top-most priority of countries all across the globe because of which we are facing a severe ecological crisis where wild animals are on the verge of mass extinction, the future of children is bleak due to environmental pollution, and human civilisations are facing an impending societal collapse. The pressing need is for society to gravitate towards eco-consciousness’-based consumption choices. People need to become proactive and learn about why worldwide communities are experiencing loss of natural habitats, depletion of natural resources, drastic declines in biodiversity. This would lead to an informed society, where people can create awareness of the existing laws and actively advocate for the stringent legal protection of animals and environment. Such an approach needs to become the norm instead of being an uncommon aspect of the society.
13. Do you feel fulfilled by the work that you are doing?
Yes, very much. I pursued law because I think advocacy is one of the strongest tools in seeking much-needed changes in the society. Legal practice is not just about protecting or defending the interests of a paying client but is also meant to seek justice, equity and fairness in the society. Hence, I firmly believe advocacy for public interest causes is an integral part of legal advocacy.
14. What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
During my tenure as the Legal Associate for Wildlife SOS and Friendicoes SECA, I have worked on animal law cases, assisted senior lawyers and public prosecutors in cases revolving around poaching, wildlife trafficking and other forms of wildlife crimes. Working as their Legal Counsel has given me firsthand experience in working with governmental functionaries and on the field conservationists. Thanks to the co-founders of these two organisations, I got to work with government bodies in enforcing animal law provisions, co-authored and revised a manual-cum-field guide for wildlife law enforcement. I have also assisted Wildlife SOS in conducting wildlife law enforcement workshops for law enforcement officers and legally supported in conducting awareness campaigns that encourage community and public participation in conserving wildlife.
15. What kind of future do you envision for yourself?
I aim to comprehensively protect every aspect of the natural environment by collaborating with like-minded people, professionals and organisations, in addressing the need for change in the global community’s approach to animals and the environment. Most importantly, I want to contribute to substantial legal education programmes on animal and environmental laws as I believe empowering animal lovers, environmental activists and law students with permeating legal education will strengthen and support these two realms’ policies and enforcement framework.