When the World's Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises Tried to Sue George W. Bush

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In 2004, all of the whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the world united for a single cause: to protest the U.S. Navy’s use of sonar during wartime. Represented by (human) attorney Lanny Sinkin, who launched the case on their behalf, the aquatic mammals argued that the Navy’s use of certain types of sonar technologies could disrupt marine mammal behavior and cause tissue damage, among other injuries.

Calling themselves the Cetacean Community (defined in the case as “all of the world’s whales, porpoises, and dolphins”), they brought a suit against George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld for permitting the harmful naval policies. Or they tried to.

The case, “Cetacean Community v. Bush,” ended up centering on whether or not animals even have the right to sue humans. On the cetacean side, Sinkin looked for legal precedents for animal plaintiffs. He noted that, in a prior case, the endangered Hawaiian Palila bird was described as “winging” its way into court as “a plaintiff in its own right.” But the defense countered that the description of the bird's legal standing had been nothing more than a “rhetorical flourish.”

Sinkin then noted that “corporations, partnerships or trusts, and even ships” are authorized to sue—so why not animals? Other inanimate and non-human entities have brought cases, he argued: If corporate entities like Coca-Cola are considered a person under the law, the cetaceans should be too.

Sinkin's case made a splash in the legal community, but in the end, the court dismissed the cetaceans' case, and a subsequent appeal failed. In an 18-page opinion for the appeals panel, Judge William A. Fletcher wrote: “If Congress and the President intended to take the extraordinary step of authorizing animals as well as people and legal entities to sue, they could, and should, have said so plainly.”