A new law in the UK just declared animals as sentient beings. New government measures there will include halting most live animal exports and a ban on hunting trophy imports, among other repercussions. These regulations are a victory for animal welfare campaigners, as the government prepares to pass into law a suite of animal welfare measures. Could that be the future for other countries, including the US?

If certain lawsuits that are now under consideration in Florida and California pass, then both animals and plants may become more protected as court cases seek to stop industrial developers from ravaging the natural world that we depend on and still have left to enjoy.

A Florida lake sues to protect itself

Should nature have rights? What about animals? These are questions wending their way through courts in as disparate places as Orange County Florida, home of Disney World, where a small lake has decided to defend itself in court against the proposed development of a housing development that would obliterate wetlands and all the flora and fauna that inhabit the acres that would be covered with houses, roads, driveways, and office buildings.

Why it matters: The water from Lake Mary Jane flows into Lake Kissimmee, through a series of canals, and from there into Lake Okeechobee. Other than dikes that protect the water filtration, that water then would flow across the Everglades and eventually out to sea. The developers had not considered that a lake could sue to defend itself. For some people the suit is heroic, and well overdue, to protect the birds, fish, and other creatures living in and around the lake. To others, it's absurd. "Your local lake or river could sue you?" the Florida Chamber of Commerce said. "Not on our watch."

This suit is the first of its kind since it would lay stake to the rights of nature to defend itself in an American courtroom. "It is long past time to recognize that we are dependent on nature, and the continued destruction of nature needs to stop," Mari Margil, executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights said in a statement.

Nature protects people

The same natural world we are bent on paving over offers a check on global warming since trees and plants trap CO2 from the atmosphere and deliver it back into the soil, via their roots. Without the rainforests, wetlands, trees and marshes, our planet will heat up even faster than it already is. Other lawsuits have protected specific endangered species; the Lake Mary Jane suit is seeking to protect plants and wildlife in general.

The suits in California and Florida stake a claim in protecting wildlife, not livestock. Just last year, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect two populations of imperiled speckled dace under the Endangered Species Act. The Service failed to make required decisions on protection for the Santa Ana speckled dace, in Southern California, and the Long Valley speckled dace in Mono County, which is nearing extinction in the wild.

Endangered Species Act protection is a badly needed lifeline for our native speckled dace,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center. “Fire, drought and reckless water policies have taken a toll on so many of the fish in Southern California’s streams. Only a handful of Long Valley speckled dace lives in their native springs and streams anymore. They need emergency action and a coordinated reintroduction to survive.”

Another suit, filed under the Endangered Species Act, was filed in California in March of 2022 to fight a gas drilling operation, specifically protecting the temblor legless lizard. Now people may not have much love for a legless lizard (rare as they are) but they hate more the notion of gas drilling in their state.

"The legless lizard is a rare, sand-swimming reptile that occupies a very small area of habitat near the Temblor Range on the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley," according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit. "The survival of the species is jeopardized by oil and gas drilling in its limited range."

The suit claims that “rampant oil and gas development is putting these rare animals at risk of extinction,” according to Lauren Parker, an attorney at the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “It’s past time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop dragging its feet, complete its review and protect the legless lizard before it’s too late.”

Rights of Nature Map

Countries that Have Recognized the Rights of Nature

  • Ecuador
  • New Zealand
  • Colombia
  • Australia
  • Bangladesh
  • India
  • Parts of the US

Does nature have rights in the US?

As of today, no U.S. court has ever upheld a "Rights of Nature" law although some remain on the books, in effect awaiting litigation. The U.S. laws, so far mostly local ordinances, face unique obstacles because of legal precedent that subordinates local government laws and lawsuits to state legislation.

One such country is Ecuador, which has an eco-centric constitution that affords animals and nature the same rights as humans. That means that when or if a company tries to drill, mine, develop or pollute a natural tract of land or water, it can't do so since it would involve killing the area's inhabitants – both plants and animals.

Legally speaking, Ecuador has taken action towards an ecocentric influenced constitution, giving nature legal, constitutional rights. This means that Ecuador has recognized nature, or Pachamama, as a capable and deserving right-bearing entity that is equal to humans.

In England declaring animals sentient

In England, the laws that are being introduced will protect animals as sentient beings, so a series of bills will cover the rights of farm animals and pets, and include other protections for animals abroad through the ban on ivory and shark fins as well as a potential ban on foie gras.

Exactly what these reforms will look like and what they mean for farmed animals is unclear. Some of the measures – including microchipping cats and stopping people from keeping primates as pets – have been years in the making, while others – such as the restriction of live animal exports – have been the subject of decades-long campaigns, according to The Guardian. The laws are directed at animal welfare and are considered the first of their kind.

“We are a nation of animal lovers and were the first country in the world to pass animal welfare laws," George Eustice, Britain's environment secretary said. "Our action plan for animal welfare will deliver on our manifesto commitment to ban the export of live animal exports for slaughter and fattening, prohibit keeping primates as pets, and bring in new laws to tackle puppy smuggling. As an independent nation, we are now able to go further than ever to build on our excellent track record.”

As the lockdown continued, animals on farms were being attacked by loose dogs. Now the new laws will give police new powers to protect farm animals from rampaging wild dogs.

How will these welfare laws impact farm animals? It's unclear, however, the use of cages for poultry and crates for pigs will not be subject to an outright ban, as the animal rights campaigners had called for. Instead, the use of cages will be examined, and farmers will be given incentives to improve animal health and welfare through the future farm subsidy regime.

Orange County, Florida's case for nature

Back in America, no such laws have passed, although certain counties are getting closer to protecting the rights of nature which include plants and animals. Two years ago, while the rest of the country was watching election results in the presidential race, the citizens of Orange Country, Florida were eagerly awaiting the results of a vote on whether the county would pass a provision to amend the county charter to protect the rights of nature. This legal doctrine holds that rivers, mountains, and forests should have legal rights, just like people.

By amending Orange county’s charter with this rights of nature provision it would protect waterways like the glassy Wekiva River from harmful pollution, and toxic algae bloom fueled by fertilizer runoff from nearby farms, home septic systems, and inadequate stormwater management, according to a local article.

While these rights of nature laws had been gaining ground in other parts of the country, Orange County would be a major test, given the fact that Disney World is there and much of the development in the country would be impacted by the vote. Still, the locals voted yes by an overwhelming 89 percent to pass the rights of nature provision in its home county. This set the table for what would happen later when Lake Mary Jane filed suit to protect itself.

The Rights of Nature Started in 1972

The first known case for the rights of nature was a law review article published back in 1972 titled, Should Trees Have Standing, by Christopher D. Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California. What started as an exercise in his law school class to enliven a sleepy group of students began to haunt him and he decided to pursue the question “quite seriously proposing” giving legal rights to nature.

The Supreme Court took up the question when Justice William O. Douglas wrote a supporting dissent in the case ​​Sierra Club v. Morton, but the full court decided against it and the Sierra Club lost.

Since then countries have adopted these laws, and domestically, the US has nudged closer to it with support for endangered species. In countries such as Canada, Mexico, France, Columbia, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Uganda, constitutional amendments have been passed to protect nature from destruction. At the United Nations, a Harmony With Nature program has helped to advance the movement globally, as NGOs have stepped in to coordinate the efforts to protect nature around the world.

Bottom Line: Laws are changing to protect the rights of animals and plants around the world

The latest law in the UK protects the welfare of animals, while lawsuits in the US are seeking to protect the rights of nature, including wildlife, trees, lakes, rivers, marshes, and more. The world is changing and as the climate heats up, humans are seeking to protect nature as it protects us.

For more great content about the environment and animals check out The Beet's environmental stories.

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