When Fish Have Lawyers

We'd like to introduce this article from our trusty research assistant, "C." (Yes, he's the same mild-mannered gent who got himself "kicked out" of a Humane Society University "classroom" earlier this year.)

If you're interested in what HSUS's vision is for the American legal system, you'll want to read his thoughts.


In the Humane Society of the United States’s 1988 Report of the President, then-VP John Grandy bragged: “We won a lawsuit which will go far toward guaranteeing that The HSUS and similar organizations have the right to bring legal actions on behalf of the animals in U.S. District courts across the nation.” Grandy made it sound like it was open season for HSUS’s lawyers. That’s not quite true (yet), but it betrays one of HSUS’s underlying philosophical goals.

Here’s a little background on the case Grandy was referring to: HSUS and its now-general counsel Roger Kindler sued the director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Secretary of the Interior in 1987 over the agency’s decision to expand legal hunting in a wildlife refuge. Initially, a US District Court ruled against HSUS, finding that the group didn’t have “standing” to bring the complaint.

HSUS appealed, and the DC Court of Appeals largely overturned the lower court ruling, and that decision is posted in the HumaneWatch document library. (Grandy’s comment about HSUS’s so-called “right to bring legal actions on behalf of the animals” referred to this intermediate legal victory.) Essentially, HSUS got a court to agree that, while it didn't have standing to sue out of an interest to enforce environmental laws, it still had an organizational interest in suing to protect “aesthetic” interests of its members.

But what if HSUS's “right to bring legal actions on behalf of the animals” was cheapened even further—almost to the point where HSUS could assert “standing” for an animal whenever it wanted to sue someone?

To understand the importance of this 22-year-old lawsuit and Grandy’s comment, read this column in last Saturday’s Washington Post. There, USC environmental law professor Christopher Stone argues that animals should be given legal rights as individuals in court.

No, really. we're not making that up.

Stone is currently trying to defend a sea lion against the National Marine Fisheries Service. His so-called “client,” Stone concludes, ultimately “wants to contest humankind's self-appointed place atop the planet.” (Frankly, I think that’s really Stone’s ego talking, and not the sea lion.) So far, thankfully, Stone has gotten nowhere, as a court ruled that a sea lion has no legal standing.

The arguments that Stone makes now for giving animals the right to sue overlap with his arguments from a 1972 piece titled “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.”

Still not making this up.

Stone writes, “It is not inevitable, nor is it wise, that natural object should have no rights to seek redress in their own behalf.” He argues that because the law already gives standing to nonhuman things like trusts and corporations, it’s not a stretch for trees, bushes, creeks, and rocks to have legal “guardians.”

Obviously, this would be a complete contortion of our legal system. Can you imagine the Federalist Papers coming to the defense of rhododendrons? Yeah, right. That’s the main difference between inanimate objects like corporations and a sandbar. Companies, municipalities, and trusts are managed and controlled by people. The same is not true for wildflowers (or animals). But some people on the fringes want to blur the line between people and everything else in the world. To them, our people-centric system is “speciesist.”

How close are we to seals or chickens successfully being “heard” in American courts? Closer than you might think. Consider that Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, was appointed to the top regulatory position in the White House last year. Sunstein has written in support of the “right” of animals to sue with humans as their representatives.

Theorists like Sunstein can be amusing. But turning these sorts of academic exercises into reality is far less appealing. Just look at Switzerland.

The canton of Zurich has had its own government-funded “animal advocate” since 1991. He can haul people before a government tribunal for leaving a goldfish without companionship, or not giving the household Mongolian gerbil at least 233 square inches of space.

No, really.

One fisherman was even charged with cruelty for taking too long to reel in his catch.

And you can be sure that super-vegan Wayne Pacelle and HSUS’s legal crew would be happy to speak on behalf of animals here in America under similar rules of standing.

Stone even laughably writes in the Post: “Lawyers value their time, and brooks have shallow pockets. Lawsuits on behalf of nonhumans are therefore unlikely to be frivolous.” Sure, until a mega-rich animal rights group can afford a cadre of 30-odd attorneys whose job it is to cook these things up.  Sound familiar?

It’s no surprise that the legal radicalism of giving courtroom standing to animals has roots in the fringes of the environmental movement. From HSUS’s “guilty until proven innocent” wildlife policy or its smattering of ties to the human population control movement, the fundamental philosophical outlook of the animal rights industry seems to require a close association with radical environmentalism. In this fringe philosophy, people are always the biggest problem, whether for the health of “Gaia” or the well-being of Babe the pig.

Does everybody who works at HSUS buy into this? We seriously doubt it. But it seems clear that the long-term goals of the leadership are backed by a radical view of people, animals, and the environment.

Just think about it. What if every pelican in the Gulf of Mexico could sue the United States government for failing to protect them from BP? What if HSUS was their law firm? Guess who would pay the “damages”?

It certainly won’t be the goldfish or the rottweilers or the chickens. Like every animal rights group on the planet, we have a feeling they’ll continue to be tax-exempt.