Director Michael Harris discusses its trailblazing work.
FOR MANY YEARS YOUR WORK WAS FOCUSED ON TRADITIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES. SO, WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO TYPES OF LITIGATION FRIENDS OF ANIMALS WAS WILLING TO PURSUE?
Before I joined Friends of Animals (FoA) full time in 2013, I considered myself pretty much an expert in most aspects of wildlife protection in the United States. Indeed, since my days as a student at Pitzer College in the 1990s, I have been part of the fight to protect our natural world from reckless human economic development.
After I went to law school, I spent more than 13 years working on legal cases to protect wildlife, representing some of the largest and best known environmental organizations in the United States. Like most of my colleagues at the time, I approached my work with a precise perspective. Namely, that the best way to protect wildlife was to focus on saving specific places and habitats.
Outside of concern that a specific animal might die, I rarely, if ever, spent much time considering my work from the viewpoint of the animals living in those places. That all changed in 2008 when I became the director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and inherited Friends of Animals as a client. The clinic had been representing FoA on two cases at the time I was hired by the university.
The first was a lawsuit seeking legal protections for 13 species of macaws and parrots to prevent these birds from being imported into the United States as pets. The second was a lawsuit to eliminate the sport-hunting of captive addax, Dama gazelle and scimitar-horned oryx on private ranches in Texas.
At first blush, these two cases were not significantly different from my work in the past. Both involved the federal Endangered Species Act and all the species involved were clearly endangered because of reckless human destruction of habitat. But while the legal work was the same, the client clearly was not.
FoA was the first organization I had encountered that sought to use the law, not just to protect animals from harm, but to advance an animals’ rights to live his or her life without human interference. I quickly learned that FoA and its staff is obsessively dedicated to this principle. For example, while FoA undoubtedly desired to prevent the destruction of macaw and parrot habitat in their native lands, of equal motivation was the belief that each individual bird imported to the United States did not deserve to be ripped away from her home, family and life to be subjected to life-long, involuntary servitude as a pet.
Likewise, while seeking legal protection for captive antelope in Texas would not directly improve the extremely degraded habitat of these species in Africa, it would hopefully prevent humans from forcing such animals, and others, into captivity in the future to satisfy the blood-cravings of hunters. As someone who had dedicated his career to environmental issues, this was a fascinating, and motivating, perspective to discover.
It did not take me long to realize the potential FoA’s work had to change the direction of environmental law. Under the current system, wildlife protection is all about compromise—we will develop so many acres of a specific habitat to save this many acres more.
Over time, these compromises multiple in number, to the point that the “saved” habitat becomes fragmented and unable to support the creatures that once depended on it. But if we instead acknowledged the rights of the individual animals, would it not become more difficult to justify compromising their lives for our comforts and needs?
WAS THIS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR WANTING TO LAUNCH THE WILDLIFE LAW PROGRAM AT FRIENDS OF ANIMALS IN 2013?
Absolutely. It became clear to me that “animal activists” had often failed to fully utilize the large array of local, state, federal and international environmental laws to protect the rights of animals to live free from human interference. At the same time “environmental activists” often utilize these laws, but do so to achieve broad environmental objectives that may not always protect the rights of free-living animals.
Thus, I worked with FoA’s President Priscilla Feral to create a program to utilize the law for a singular purpose: to ensure the right of all wildlife to live in an ecosystem free from human manipulation, exploitation or abuse. In carrying out this work, we try our best to not purport to know what is best for any wild animal. Instead, we only seek to be a surrogate for these creatures in the human-controlled courtrooms and legislatures around the world where humans too often make horrific judgments about the fate of wild animals.
WHAT ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE WILDLIFE LAW PROGRAM OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
From the standpoint of winning legal cases in the courts, the program has clearly been most successful in protecting wild horses in the American west. Since we first entered this area of public lands management, we have had victories that have prevented the roundup and removal of thousands of horses in Nevada, Wyoming and Montana. We also have several cases currently before judges that might protect many more horses in the next few years.
I think it is beyond dispute the FoA has had more success in preventing these roundups and forcing BLM to comply with laws like the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act than any other advocacy organization. However, for me our greatest successes so far have not simply been court victories. It is how our work is rapidly transforming the focus of wildlife policy.
For example, and this is closely related to our wild horse work, many advocates have begun to believe that the best means of conserving certain species is to tolerate a certain level of human management. It is hard, however, to reconcile any significant level of human management with the desire to allow certain animals to live free and wild.
Any system of wildlife law that would control where an animal may live, whom she may live with, where she can go, and when she can reproduce is not only wrong ethically, it is a practical failure. It is because of our aggressive work that these simple truths have not been completely lost in the policy debate.
WHAT ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT GOING FORWARD?
Our first three years as a program was all about establishing ourselves. We were very active in filing cases and carving out specific areas of work. I feel we have done that very well. Our next phase as a program is to develop a consistent philosophy on respect species-specific, basic capacities: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, play, sense/imagination/thought, emotion, practical reason, affiliation, and control over one’s environment. The right to ethical consideration we seek is not the granting of specific substantive rights to animals, like the right to life, freedom, etc. It is, however, a pathway to strengthening legal protections for animals. By requiring decision-makers and others to maintain a dialogue about the human impact on animal well-being it is believed that societal and legal beliefs regarding the rights of other animals will change for the better.