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Should Wild Animals Have Property Rights Over Their Habitats?

Want to build where animals live? First, you'll have to talk to their lawyer.

Should Wild Animals Have Property Rights Over Their Habitats?

[Photo: Michael Durham/ Minden Pictures/Getty Images]

One of the many reasons the world is facing a sixth mass extinction is straightforward: As more wild areas are farmed or developed or forested, animals are running out of places to live.

Since existing conservation efforts haven't solved the problem, an Australian philosopher proposes a new solution—giving property rights to wild animals. If an animal's home is threatened, a human lawyer or advocate would step in on its behalf.

"It's just a way of giving animals a voice during a land management process that is putting their lives at risk," says John Hadley, who teaches at Western Sydney University and wrote a book on the idea of animal property rights.

If someone wants to develop or change wild animal habitat, they would have to go through a process with an independent guardian for the animals. It's a little like the process that happens in many countries when someone wants to develop an area where endangered species live, but goes further to protect all animals. (Even animals that aren't endangered are dramatically losing populations.)

"It's trying to reform the existing system, not overturn it," says Hadley. "It doesn't require a huge change in terms of what's involved. There are existing habitat conservation systems in place now that we can sort of insert this idea or this concept into."

The concept is also related to the way guardianship happens for human property owners; if an elderly homeowner is mentally unfit, for example, a legal guardian can step in to advocate on their behalf.

Lawyers have argued that animals should have legal rights in other cases—such as a lawsuit that argued that a pair of research chimps should be sent to a sanctuary. (Lawyers recently filed an appeal on behalf of another chimp in a related case.)

But those cases have seen little success so far, and giving animals property rights would require an even bigger shift in attitudes. "You have to get past obstacles of imagination," says Hadley.

There are also some details that would have to be resolved if this were to actually work—such as how a guardian could represent the interests of multiple animals simultaneously. Right now, the whole idea is academic. But Hadley thinks it's worth more consideration.

"This is a novel way of addressing a serious problem," he says. "When the mechanisms we have in place now don’t seem to be working, it's worth a try."

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