The following story originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine - Ed.
As far back as she can remember, Elisabeth Custalow ’01 has been interested in protecting the rights of animals. When she was younger, she was always carrying bugs out of the house instead of killing them, and she once tried to save a caterpillar from being squished by a boy on the playground. “I was the kid getting information from the ASPCA and PETA and telling my parents about it over dinner,” Custalow said.
Custalow now continues her fight for animal rights on a larger scale, working as counsel for an animal advocacy organization and serving as executive director for Four Feet Forward (FFF), an organization that strives to prevent animal abuse and neglect.
Custalow found William & Mary stood out from other universities with its historical background, and students and faculty who were so engaged with academics. She pursued a degree in English, since she had loved language since she was young. Her classes in the English department challenged her to think outside of herself, and the attention to detail and analytical experience has been a great asset to her legal work.
Outside the classroom at William & Mary, Custalow rode on the equestrian team and was appreciative of the time she got to interact with the horses between school assignments and exams. “I’ve been riding since I was a kid,” she said. “It was nice not having to give that up while I was at school.”
Custalow went on to law school at the University of Virginia. As a law student, she served on the board of the Virginia Animal Law Society, advocating for animal welfare issues. During her time at UVA, she heard about the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in California and applied for an internship. “I wanted to use my law degree to improve the world around me,” she said. After taking the Virginia bar exam, she drove across the country with her two dogs in the back of the car.
With ALDF, Custalow wrote a memo on a proposed ordinance in West Hollywood that would ban the selling of puppy mill-bred dogs. She focused on commerce clause implications in the proposed ban and noted it would pass constitutional muster; West Hollywood has since passed the ordinance.
After the internship, Custalow worked as a prosecutor in Hopewell, Virginia, for over four years, prosecuting misdemeanors and felonies and writing appeal briefs. She served on sexual assault, domestic violence and juvenile justice committees, and handled the legal proceedings in animal cruelty crimes. She joined an animal advocacy organization as counsel this past September.
In 2012, Custalow began donating her time to FFF, an organization dedicated to helping other nonprofits prevent harm to animals. Many grassroot animal organizations are spread thin, and it’s difficult for them to take on larger projects, like legal cases or marketing campaigns. Clients come to FFF with ways in which they would like to improve their organization’s efforts, and FFF matches them up with lawyers, graphic designers and professionals with marketing experience who can offer pro bono services. FFF keeps a database of these professionals and matches are made by region, expertise and desired outcome by the animal organization.
“We address lots of different issues,” Custalow said. “We are not specifically a farmed animal or zoo animal advocacy firm.”
Custalow lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her two bulldogs. She also has two horses, including a thoroughbred named Breezy, who had been starving when Custalow and her mother rescued her.
Custalow feels compelled to help animals, saying she wouldn’t be true to herself if she weren’t doing it. Her efforts with animal advocacy organizations allow her to work for the needs of animals each day, something her younger self would be proud to see.