Southern California environment news and trends

Animal Rights, Ethics, PETA, & Orcas

Civil War-Era Slave Auction Re-Enacted At St. Louis Courthouse

John Moore/Getty Images

St. Louis, MO had a slave-auction re-enactment earlier this year. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims that orcas are being enslaved at Sea World. Sea World dismisses the whole thing as a stunt.

I wish I knew where Derek St. Pierre is. Derek was in my first year law school study group. He was and probably still is a guy who cares and knows about animal rights law. I wonder what he'd think of PETA's lawsuit news, that we reported yesterday. I would have liked to ask him, like in the old days, when we were having bomb threats at UC Hastings and going to vegan pizza restaurants in the Tenderloin.

So I didn't get to speak to Derek or any other legal expert about the merits of the orca suit claim I reported yesterday. But today I read this in the ABA journal:

Animal rights law professors contacted by AP didn’t give the suit much chance of success. Law professor David Favre of Michigan State University predicted an early dismissal. “The court will most likely not even get to the merits of the case, and find that the plaintiffs do not have standing to file the lawsuit at all," he wrote to the wire service in an email.

The problem with animal rights claims in American courts is always standing. Courts are for laws; laws are for people. Animals might have ethical rights; those rights have little-to-nothing to do with human laws. (This animal rights group in the U.K. has sort of a fascinating breakout of theories under which one can conceive of animals' right to standing on moral grounds.)

Legal theories about how to treat animals and why are incredibly imaginative and innovative. They're also relatively untested and rarely successful. No small part of that is because courts mostly just don't buy that animals were supposed to be thought of when someone wrote a law originally. At the same time, law school course offerings and even advanced degrees are growing as interest in this area of law grows too

The Nonhuman Rights Project, spearheaded by animal law scholar-expert Steven M. Wise, aims to transform common law interpretations of animals from things to people. Their goal: 

The Nonhuman Rights Project intends to demand that American state high courts declare that a nonhuman animal may possess at least one legal right. Once a court recognizes this possibility, the next legal question will appropriately shift from the irrational, biased, and overly simplistic question, “What species is the plaintiff?,” to the rational, nuanced, value-laden, and policy-enriched question, “What qualities does the plaintiff possess that are relevant to the issue of whether she is entitled to the legal right she claims?”

A slightly different tack to take than just asserting in federal court that animals are enslaved. 

All this is to say that I think that grounding in the larger picture of animal ethics and rights might tell you a little something about the current lawsuit as you read its explanations of standing. Here's what the current lawsuit says about why the dolphins need "next friends" to represent them: 

Plaintiffs cannot bring this action to seek relief for themselves due to inaccessibility and incapacity.

I'm really curious: do you think that should get the dolphins and their lawyers into court? 

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