The story is real. We are not all caught up in a fairy tale or one of Aesop’s fables. Last week People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Diego, on behalf of five whales. It claims that the whales are being held at SeaWorld parks in violation of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S. and prohibits involuntary servitude. PETA claims that the five big fish are slaves, because they were forcibly taken from their families to be put in captivity, where they are denied their natural environment.
In 1966 Congress enacted the Animal Welfare Act to improve the treatment of certain animals. In its original form the Act protected "live dogs, cats, monkeys, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits." Four years later, Congress expanded the reach of the Act, adding dead animals. The law now reads: The term "animal" means any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet... Animal rights groups have used the law to attack practices we have long taken for granted.
No industry has escaped the litigation blitz. In 1972 the military was sued when it attempted to eliminate over 10 million black birds that wrecked the neighborhood with tons of droppings, including damage to crops and the outbreak of disease. The activists claimed they had an interest in being able to observe and enjoy the presence of blackbirds. Animal rights activists sued stop issuance of patents for animals created in the lab. These non-human organisms are considered patentable because they do not occur naturally in nature.
PETA is deadly serious. They are not just out to get attention. Along with the ASPCA and other animal rights groups PETA has been waging a guerrilla war to win for animals the same rights as humans. Last week the Federal circuit court in Washington D.C. dismissed a suit against Ringling Brothers that alleged cruelty to an elephant because it was made to perform in the circus. The same court last year allowed a zoo visitor to sue to get companionship for a chimpanzee. In Texas, a few years back, a court outlawed the slaughter and sale of horses for human consumption overseas. And a few years ago, the little town of Hegins, Pennsylvania faced a court challenge over its 65th annual pigeon shoot. The shoot was called off.
There has even been suit against a city pound that removed stray animals from the streets and disposed of them. San Clemente Island, California, is a military enclave under the jurisdiction of the Navy. In 1977, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, that removal of goats running wild on San Clemente was necessary to protect endangered animals and plants in a critical habitat covering approximately one third of the island. There is no public access to the island; the animal rights activists sued.
Prof. Gary Francione, who along with a colleague started an Animal right s law clinic at Rutgers Law school has become star on the animal rights circuit. He has said that gorillas should be declared “persons” with constitutional rights. He says that not eating, wearing or using animals is non- negotiable. Francione considers the fight to give animals the same rights as humans to be a liberation movement that demands change in our basic principle of equality.
Practices that we previously regarded as natural and inevitable, such as a well-done steak for dinner or a pair of leather shoes have come to be seen as the result of an unjustifiable prejudice. In order to have meat on the table at a price that people can afford, says Francione, we tolerate methods of meat production that confine animals in cramped, unsuitable conditions for their entire lives. PETA thinks rearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own. Peta intends to put an end to this practice.
The animal right s activists know that they are not likely to win constitutional rights for the five big fish just yet, but that does not deter them. They know it won’t happen overnight, but they believe they can accomplish it in little increments, so insignificant, that they escape notice of the general public. Allowing PETA to represent animals, to most of us, does not seem far-fetched. We are accustomed to having guardians appointed to protect the rights on minors, or conservators to protect the rights of those unable to represent themselves because they are mentally incapable of doing so. So permitting PETA to speak for these dumb animals is not a stretch if they have rights that they are unable to defend.
One of our problems is that the values that put us at the top of the food chain, as master of all animals are not as appreciated as they should be. Rather than donate the money to feed starving children, Leona Helmsley, left $12 million to her dog. But the greatest threat to our standing as the master of all animals comes from a most unlikely source, our courts, which have entertained these species of lawsuit and created rights for animals that nature and common sense dictate they cannot have. PETA did not pluck the idea of suing in the name of five whales out of thin air. Decisions of our own Supreme Court were the seed. Many years ago Justice Douglas wrote:
The critical question of "standing" would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers….. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation…