Animal Planet and the Law

Darrell VanDeusen
Darrell VanDeusen

Part One – the Monkey Selfie case

I read today about the Ninth Circuit argument held July 12 in Naruto v. David Slater, et al., No. 16-15469 (9th Cir.).  Known as the “monkey selfie” case, the matter involves a wild Celebes crested macaques (Naturo) who used a camera set up by a nature photographer to take a picture of herself.  The picture went viral on social media and brought fame to Naturo.  See, e.g.,  But not fortune.

In 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit in California federal court seeking to have the court assign a copyright to the monkey selfie, and make PETA responsible for administering any proceeds from the photos for the benefit of the monkey and other crested macaques on the reserve on Sulawesi, where the picture was taken.  A federal district court judge dismissed the case and PETA appealed. At oral argument, the Ninth Circuit focused largely on whether PETA had authority to sue on Naturo’s behalf.

But there are larger issues involved here of course – like whether animals have the same rights as humans.  A few years ago, for example, PETA lost a lawsuit where it alleged that SeaWorld violated the 13th Amendment by keeping killer whales “enslaved” in captivity.  The court held that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of involuntary servitude applies only to humans.  Tilikum v. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc., 842 F. Supp. 2d 1259 (S.D. Cal. 2012).

Part Two – Goats and Unions

That brings me to the second animal issue.  I frequently comment (usually but not always in jest) that one day I will leave the law to raise goats.  There is a cottage industry that enables one to hire a goatherd and a crew of goats to come eradicate weeds and invasive species from your property.  Doing so avoids the use of chemicals and provides a good, natural way to address the problem.

Seems simple and a good idea, right?  Well, not at Western Michigan University.  It seems that goats used there to clean up a wooded area on campus rife with poison ivy and invasive plants got the University a grievance from the AFSCME unit.  The claim?  The goats are taking work away from laid off union workers.

The University used the goat crew last year.  But when the goats returned this year the union complained that it had not been notified of the intention to have the goats come back again.  The University has responded that the goats are not mowing the lawn (or doing facilities maintenance or landscaping), but cleaning up the wooded lot full of plants that are dangerous to humans but not to goats. Ultimately an arbitrator may have to rule on the issue.

Regardless of the outcome, I wonder if it is possible the goats could organize their own union.  Now there’s an idea PETA might get behind.  The only problem (ok, maybe not the only problem) is how to get the goats to sign authorization cards without opposable thumbs.

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