Academy award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix has always used his fame to advance things that matter the most to him. Many times, that means he speaks out in support of animal-rights issues at big publicity events, like he did while accepting the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the 2019 film Joker.
Sometimes, his activism isn’t front-and-center like at the Academy Awards, but it is just as important. This is the case with a video Phoenix recently made to support the work of Professor Delcianna Winders of Vermont Law and Graduate School (VLGS), where animal law has been part of the curriculum for more than three decades.
“Hey everyone, my name is Joaquin. And I just thought I’d take this opportunity to let you see my new hairstyle,” he opened the video donning a shaggy hairstyle. “I guess while you’re checking it out, I can just tell you how much I appreciate and admire your dedication to the field of animal law.”
Winders, an Associate Professor at VLGS and the school’s Animal Law and Policy Institute Director, is well known for her work to advance animal rights.
“I had the pleasure of taking an informal class with Professor Winders years ago and I know how important these courses are for protecting animals and exposing the industries that abuse them,” Phoenix said in the video.
“So, I thank you and I wish each of you an amazing education which I know that you’ll get thanks to Winders and institutions like the Vermont Law school and others that are [teaching] just how important the subject matter is,” Phoenix said. “My most sincere gratitude for what you’re doing.”
Joaquin Phoenix works to advance animal rights
During his now famous Oscar acceptance speech, Phoenix spoke in depth about the injustice of factory farming. “I think whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice,” he said at the Oscars in 2020.
Shortly thereafter, Phoenix connected with Winders to gain further insight into animal law. “I worked with Joaquin to help him understand the critically important role of the law in perpetuating factory farming and animal suffering—and the tremendous potential to use the law to challenge this exploitation,” Winders tells VegNews.
On the heels of winning his Oscar, Phoenix, fiancé Rooney Mara, and a group of activists headed out to Manning Beef, where they negotiated the rescue of Liberty and Indigo—a cow and her calf who were set for slaughter but, thanks to the rescuers, are now living out their lives in peace at the California location of Farm Sanctuary.
“Joaquin Phoenix is a rare gem who reaches a broad audience and talks the talk but also, importantly, walks the walk,” Winders says. “He helps give voice to the interconnected injustices all around us. He refuses to disregard them even though it’s much easier to do so. And he uses his platform to call them out.”
Winders says that Phoenix’s use of his fame to help animals has a far-reaching positive impact. “That sort of recognition, when we’re challenging industries and government agencies day in and day out that spend billions to normalize a cruel system, is critical to helping others recognize the work that needs to be done, and to legitimize dedicating their lives to it,” she says.
Importance of animal law
With the motto “law for the community and the world,” VLGS is one of many schools that include animal law in their curriculum, and for good reason. The top-ranked environmental school, Winders says, recognizes the interconnectedness of humans, other animals, and the environment when building its programming which seeks to cover topics such as agriculture, food, energy, environmental justice, restorative justice, and more.
A graduate of NYU Law, Winders initially went to law school when she realized the wrongs of the legal system as it relates to animal exploitation. “I came to understand that not only were our laws and policies creating loopholes to ignore and allow this exploitation, but that in fact it was much more insidious: Our laws and policies have been affirmatively constructed in ways to facilitate and perpetuate animal exploitation,” Winders says.
“If the law is facilitating factory farming, animal experimentation, a deadly pet trade, etc., I reasoned, then we could use the law to challenge those industries,” Winders says.
For the past nearly two decades, Winders has applied this ethos to her work in ending practices such as traveling elephant acts, tiger cub-petting operations, and the breeding of orcas for entertainment—all practices that, in recent years, have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the law.
At VLGS, students can follow in the footsteps of Phoenix by taking a myriad of classes to help them become better animal-rights advocates, including classes in undercover investigations, concentrations in animal law, programs like the Farmed Animal Advocacy Clinic, and the new Master of Animal Protection Policy program.
“I was told early on, even by my own mentors, that animal law wasn’t a field, not a line of work I could go into,” Winders says. “I’ve proven them wrong, and one of my goals is to make the path a little easier for the growing number of young people who also want to do this critically important work.”