Earth Day reminds us of our duty to nature, including protecting its wild creatures

Last Monday, April 22, more than 192 countries across the globe celebrated Earth Day, calling attention to the work that lies ahead if we are to save the planet from environmental degradation and celebrating victories scored by environmental activists.

One such victory occurred on Earth Day itself in appellate court in Connecticut. In keeping with this year’s theme of “Protect the Species,” the court heard oral arguments in the case of three elephants in a traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, Connecticut.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed the suit, seeking recognition of the elephants’ fundamental right to bodily liberty. The project contends that the elephants are held under deplorable conditions, something the USDA seems to confirm – it has cited the Commerford Zoo more than 50 times for failing to adhere to the minimum standards required by the Animal Welfare Act. The project seeks to gain the elephants’ release from the circus so they can be moved to an elephant sanctuary that has offered lifelong care, at no cost to the zoo.

To date, the idea that animals might have rights that humans enjoy under law is far-fetched to many, so moving this issue into a court of law is history in the making and a victory for animal rights activists and those they seek to protect. Although a decision will not be announced for several months, Stephen Wise, the project’s president and lead attorney, said that “this was the first time a Connecticut court has meaningfully engaged with the issues raised by an elephant rights case, which is deeply grounded in Connecticut common law.”

Closer to home, an orca gave birth to a calf a few months ago in Puget Sound, and this one survived, the first in the Southern Resident population of Puget Sound to do so in four years. Although this is an occasion for joy and celebration, it’s also a time of considerable concern on the part of those orca supporters who have spent years fighting entrenched interests that stand in the way of removing dams that inhibit the flow of chinook salmon – a key source of food for the orcas – into the Pacific.

Consequently, a coalition of community groups, scientists, lawyers and indigenous peoples last January unveiled the Declaration of the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas, urging all levels of government to recognize the inherent rights of the Southern Residents and the ecosystems upon which they depend in law. The declaration is open to signature and adoption by anyone – individuals, organizations, government entities. 

It’s a groundbreaking strategy of redefining the relationship between humankind and animals in order to save creatures who do not have the ability to fight their own battle on our turf. The declaration joins with people worldwide trying to protect the animal kingdom by adopting a new framework for environmental protection. It asserts nature’s inherent rights and claims that nature, or more specifically, endangered animals should be heard as a real party with rights.

The declaration points out that orcas do not have a legal right to life under current law. Calling for a transformational shift in our behavioral, societal and economic relationships, as well as our governance, the declaration creates a bill of rights for the orcas that includes life, autonomy, free and safe passage, an adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional or mental harm, including a habitat degraded by noise, pollution and contamination.

Orca supporters and those fighting to free captive elephants in Connecticut are paving the way for a significant departure from the way humankind has relegated animals to a status that sentences highly intelligent creatures to extinction. To their way of thinking, nature and all living beings have inherent rights to exist, flourish, evolve and regenerate, and to restoration, recovery and preservation.

The challenge for animal rights advocates charting this new legal territory is to convince official decision-makers, including the courts, that protections afforded to these animals so far have placed the priority of economics over the animal’s survival. It questions an environmental regulatory process that continues to view animals as resources to be exploited rather than living beings with which we are interconnected.

More specifically, why is it not reasonable to recognize the legal rights of animals with highly developed cerebral skills, who are self-aware and who show empathy and altruism? By creating enforceable rights, we improve the legal system so that it does not exclude the very beings we are trying to protect.

The lawyers will battle out these and other issues in the courts, and legislative bodies will engage in the debate as well, but it is reassuring to know that work is underway to redefine our relationship to animals. For a country that overcame a system of laws that once assigned slaves to property status, it should not be that difficult to find the legal and constitutional means to protect members of the animal kingdom.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.

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