The BP oil disaster goes on, and so too does the consequential mass killing of animals caught up in this. It is to be hoped that the lawsuit against BP by Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center will be successful. They are taking the suit on the basis that the Endangered Species Act prohibits the harming of endangered animals. And, clearly, BP’s actions have harmed many.
While the suit is inherently bound by current law, I would like to suggest that on the ethical level, BP may perhaps be guilty of murder. While current law does not recognize an animal as a person (and therefore does not recognize the killing of animals as murder), the day may not be too far off when it does. In 2008, for example, a Spanish parliamentary committee agreed that the rights of life and freedom should be extended to great apes. More recently, and more directly related to the Gulf disaster, in January of this year a team of scientists declared that dolphins are second in intelligence only to humans and have called for them to be treated as “non-human persons.” Dolphins and other whales are now known to have a cognitive sense of themselves as individuals, to have complex social structures and culture — they can teach each other new innovations and skills — and, importantly, to have the capacity of language. The time has come for us to realize that we don’t have the right to slaughter creatures such as the dolphin simply because we are “people” and they are “animals.”
Let’s not forget that this disaster resulted first in the deaths of 11 crewmen, in the initial BP-leased Transocean oil rig explosion. It remains to be seen whether BP will ultimately even be held responsible for their deaths in any way. So the idea that they might legally be considered murderers for the deaths of the countless dolphins, sea turtles, sea birds, and other animals that are dying due to the pollution of their environment is far-fetched at this point in time. But when, for example, the Love Canal disaster unfolded, the responsible companies (Hooker Chemical and Occidental Petroleum) were eventually sued by the EPA and also settled numerous residents’ lawsuits. Certainly something like this will have to happen in the case of this BP Gulf oil disaster (prosecutions, hopefully). And perhaps, sometime in the foreseeable future, we will also come to view this situation for what it really is.