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May 31, 2010 / V A Nichols

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  • May 28, 2010, 5:41 PM ET

Plaintiffs With Fins? The Legal Rights of Oil Spill’s Animal Victims


A story in The Seattle Times today about an Exxon Valdez survivor, an otter that had been sickly for years after being rescued from the slick in Prince William Sound (spoiler alert: it’s a sad ending), got us thinking. Do the wildlife victims of the current oil spill in the Gulf have any legal rights?

The short answer: not really.

There are no laws that exist simply to protect animal interests. U.S. law protects animals as property. That means laws designed to protect animals exist only to protect the interests of their owners or the public, say animal activists who specialize in animal law. And some animals are entirely exempt from the laws.

“Most of the wild animals affected by the BP spill do not have any legal protections at all, and there is no penalty that can be imposed for suffocating them with oil, destroying their habitats and otherwise harming them,” said Justin Goodman, a representative of PETA.

The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act have protections in place for the dolphins, whales and sea turtles that live in the Gulf. But the Minerals Management Service has approved oil exploration without the permits required by the two acts. The Obama administration is the target of lawsuits over this.

The Department of Interior says on its website the BP oil spill has prompted the agency to improve and strengthen reviews of drilling procedures required under the two acts.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys aren’t exactly holding back when it comes to trying to reel in new oil spill clients. And we’ve written about the creativity of animal rights attorneys when it comes to finding ways to protect our furry brethren. It’s not a stretch to think that these lawyers will sift through local animal cruelty statutes to examine whether they can pin spill-related animal deaths and injuries on what they may say is BP’s negligence.

This week the Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center sued BP, noting the Endangered Species Act prohibits the “take” of endangered species. The ESA defines “take” as meaning “to harass, harm, pursue…or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

The Defenders note government wildlife agencies have interpreted “harm” as meaning “an act which actually kills or injures fish or wildlife” and may include “significant habitat modification or degradation.”

BP did nore repond to a request for comment.


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