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Animal Activists Use Oil Spill to Push for Wildlife's Day in Court

Are radical views of legal "rights" for animals becoming more mainstream?

In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, numerous government agencies and private firms are working together to ensure that all those people whose livelihoods have been adversely affected receive just compensation.  But animal rights attorneys argue a major population is being overlooked and are seeking legal remedies on behalf of wildlife affected by the spill.

According to the American Bar Association, a number of organizations have recently tried to sue under the Endangered Species Act on behalf of sea turtles who have died in the Gulf.  In federal court, the groups sued to force BP into halting controlled burn operations meant to stem the spread of oil.  In early July, BP and the Coast Guard agreed to allow environmental scientists to "observe" burn efforts to ensure the turtles would be removed from danger.

In addition, the ABA reports that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called on the attorneys general of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to prosecute executives of BP on animal cruelty charges.  "The oil leak represents an example where tremendous pain and death are brought to individual animals," Michigan State University law professor David S. Favre says.  "The law penalty has no easy way to deal with these individual deaths," he says.  This is something animal activists want changed and some are pushing for new laws that would extend legal rights and protections--usually reserved for humans--to animals.

One of these activists is President Obama's "regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein.  Sunstein has come under public scrutiny in the past for his controversial views surrounding "rights" for livestock, pets and wildlife.  “[T]here should be extensive regulation of the use of animals in entertainment, scientific experiments, and agriculture,” Sunstein wrote at the University of Chicago in 2002.

In a 2004 book he co-edited titled "Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions", Sunstein also suggested:

[A]nimals should be permitted to bring suit, with human beings as their representatives, to prevent violations of current law … Any animals that are entitled to bring suit would be represented by (human) counsel, who would owe guardian like obligations and make decisions, subject to those obligations, on their clients’ behalf.

These kinds of pleas have even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  In April, the high court struck down a law intended to ban the sale of "crush porn" videos, "a particularly offensive form of animal cruelty." But even though the activists lost this round, the ABA observes "a shift toward the mainstream for animal advocacy."

"It was noteworthy for the Supreme Court to accept cert and decide a case that involved animal cruelty which, in turn, brought attention to some of the most horrific acts of cruelty and, in turn, the need for laws to protect animals," says Joan E. Schaffner, director of the animal law program at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.
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