How Earth Law Supports Animal Rights

Source: Elephants

Source: Elephants

By Hannah Fitzpatrick

On July 4th, 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court in the northern region of India ruled that all animals have the same rights and legal status as humans, and cannot be treated simply as property. In this historic ruling, a Division Bench of Justices Rajiv Sharma and Lokpal Singh not only granted all animals this distinct status, they also issued a series of steps that would be taken in order to prevent cruelty against animals.[i]

These directions towards preventing animal cruelty in this Indian district include provisions such as the following:

  • Restriction of the amount of load allowed to be pulled by various animals according to the kind of carriage being pulled

  • Restriction of the amount of riders per carriage pulled by an animal

  • Banning of the use of sharp tackle or equipment on animals

  • Veterinarians of Uttarakhand must treat any stray animals that are brought to them[ii]

This decision has made all residents of the district of Uttarakhand legally responsible for the welfare and protection of animals, similar to how parents are legally responsible for the welfare of their children.[iii] Despite this groundbreaking step in the fight for animal rights, it is likely that the Indian Supreme Court will overturn this ruling. That does not mean that the growing global movement to extend our ethical considerations to animals will stop.

Animals Are a Lot Smarter Than We Think 

An increasing number of studies suggest that animals may possibly possess cognitive abilities similar to that of humans, contrary to popular wisdom.

“Mental Time Travel” in Animals 

Episodic memory, also known as “mental time travel”, is a type of long-term memory that allows people to recall past events and experiences in a serial form, from which we can reconstruct the actual events that took place at any given point in our lives.[iv] This is an extremely vital skill when it comes to human intelligence, because this type of long-term memory allows people to develop complex strategies to solving problems. However, according to University of Kentucky psychology professor Thomas Zentall, humans are not the only species known to have episodic memory.

In Zentall’s 2013 study “Animals Represent the Past and the Future”, he argues that episodic memory has been observed in a number of species such as dolphins, birds, rats, and pigeons. For example, regarding birds, Zentall references a previous experiment conducted by British psychologist Nicola Clayton on the natural caching, or food hiding, behavior of certain types of birds. After several trials, Clayton discovered that the birds learned to cache food in areas where they knew they’d be hungry the following day, and made sure that their favorite food was cached in such a way that they’d always have access to it in the future. Zentall then conducted a similar experiment involving pigeons, and came to an identical conclusion.[v]

Source: By Ingrid Taylor, San Francisco, CA (Western Scrub Jay) [CC BY 2.0 (]

Source: By Ingrid Taylor, San Francisco, CA (Western Scrub Jay) [CC BY 2.0 (]

Animals similar in genetic makeup with humans, such as bonobos and orangutans, are also known to possess this ability of “mental time travel”. In a 2006 study conducted by psychologists Nicholas Mulcahy and Josep Call, when these animals practiced using tools to retrieve food, they eventually started to take the practiced using tools to retrieve food. These results suggest that not only do these animals have episodic memory, but, after conducting multiple experiments, that this ability has evolved over millions of years.[vi]

Prairie Dogs and Language

In multiple studies conducted by Northern Arizona University professor and psychologist Con Slobodchikoff over the past 30 years, there have been numerous discoveries about the way prairie dogs – whose natural habitat is within the Arizona desert – communicate. The most significant discovery made was in Slobodchikoff’s 2009 study that analyzed their behavior when the prairie dogs were threatened.

Source: Prairie Dogs

Source: Prairie Dogs

After first observing how a colony of prairie dogs reacted to the presence of predators, he discovered that they didn’t just give the same alarm call each time – it sounded different depending on what type of predator the prairie dogs saw. He also noticed that even though the calls signaling a certain type of predator would follow a distinct pattern, they contained small nuances that varied with each individual predator of that type.[vii] This was further confirmed in a 2014 study in which after putting dogs, humans, and simple shape cutouts of all different forms, sizes, and colors within sight of the prairie dogs, analysis of the prairie dog calls revealed that the squeaks of alarm were different for each predator cutout presented to them.[viii] 

The Evolution of Animal Rights

Though the animal rights movement seems to be a recent development in modern society, it has actually been a cause that has been around for thousands of years, but initially from more of a philosophical point of view. For instance, the Greek philosopher Aristotle placed all living things in a hierarchy and claimed animals were high on the hierarchy, and should be treated as such, because they possessed “nutritive and sensitive souls”. Medieval philosopher and Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas that because of the hierarchy of creation imposed by God, all animals should be treated with the upmost respect. However, both Aristotle and Aquinas mention that humans are above animals because they do not have the ability to reason.[ix]

However, the idea of the legal rights of animals dates as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman empires. For instance, Roman law described wild animals as “…having no owner, thus belonging to no one,” though the only restriction on this was if there were wild animals on someone’s property.[x]

The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals and believes that “Humans are not the only animals entitled to recognition and protection of their fundamental rights.”[xi] According to the Nonhuman Rights Project Executive Director, Kevin Schneider, “Whether we’re talking about vulnerable human beings or nonhuman animals like our chimpanzee and elephant clients, legally enforceable rights are critical to helping individuals protect and, if necessary, regain their liberty and dignity—especially in circumstances where they might otherwise be powerless to confront the people or institutions responsible for depriving them of these vital aspects of existence.”[xii]

Though common law mainly views animals as property, numerous people, governments, and organizations (including Earth Law) see them as equals. They are living beings, just like humans, and should be protected at all costs. Anti-cruelty laws have been around since the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641, when they issued a statute stating that no one in the colony could exercise any sort of cruelty to any animal surrounding them unless it was for hunting food.[xiii]

So why are animals, such as orcas, are still having issues with cruelty, decreased population, and the threat of extinction?

What Is Earth Law, and How Does It Support Animal Rights?

One answer has to do with how we see the world. If a human-centric worldview justifies the continued suffering and extinction of animal species, an earth-centric worldview holds that humans are one part of an interconnected web of life on Earth and dependent on that web for survival.

Drawing from both indigenous world views as well as a decades long movement for Rights of Nature, Earth Law holds that nature has inherent rights and legally deserves the same protection as people and organizations. At Earth Law Center, we recognize nature’s right to exist, thrive and evolve: enabling nature to defend these rights in court and protecting nature the way common law protects humans.

But how exactly do we do this?

  • Working with local partners to establish legal rights for animals

  • Submitting Amicus Briefs to relevant court cases to bring an Earth Law perspective into consideration

  • Providing pro bono legal research and writing to include animal rights provisions in amendments to the law sought by local animal rights activists

The Case of Southern Resident Orcas

Earth Law Center is partnering with Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (Gig Harbor community group), the Nonhuman Rights Project and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to seek rights recognition for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population and eventually for the Salish Sea.

Source: Southern Resident Orcas By NOAA Fisheries (anon.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Southern Resident Orcas By NOAA Fisheries (anon.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, are a tightly knit, matrilineal community of whales found within the northeastern region of the North American Pacific Ocean. This community of whales consists of three pods – J pod, K pod, and L pod. Each pod has a characteristic dialect of calls, or sounds, to communicate, though certain calls are common between all three pods. The calls used by the Southern Resident community are unlike the calls used by any other community of killer whales. These calls can travel 10 miles or more under water.[xiv] 

This community of orcas is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as of 2006.[xv] As of June 2018, the total population of southern resident killer whales is 74 whales (J Pod = 23, K Pod= 18, L Pod = 34). And based on the population trend published by the Center for Whale Research every July, it is still decreasing.[xvi] 


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some steps have been taken in order to protect this whale species and prevent its population from further declining. For instance, in March 2018, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State issued an executive order that listed efforts that should be made to preserve the southern resident killer whales from extinction. 

Some of these efforts include expanding training programs that teach whale-watching vessels how to assist in the event of an oil spill, reviewing and amending (as needed) recreational and commercial fishing regulations prioritizing protection of key areas and fish runs for southern resident orca recovery, and prioritizing funding for storm water mitigation projects that contribute to southern resident recovery.[xvii] Also, earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and their partner organizations mobilized to take care of an emaciated and ailing three year old orca off the Northwest Pacific coast.[xviii] Rights for the Southern Resident Orcas could strengthen the protection of this iconic animal to prevent its extinction.

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[ix] Burr, Steven I.; “Towards Legal Rights of Animals”; Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review Vol. 4, Issue 2, Article 2; 1975

[x] Burr, Steven I.; “Towards Legal Rights of Animals”; Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review Vol. 4, Issue 2, Article 2; 1975



[xiii] Burr, Steven I.; “Towards Legal Rights of Animals”; Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review Vol. 4, Issue 2, Article 2; 1975