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Animals and their property rights

Florida author, naturalist and activist Susan Cerulean has explored and lived on the state's northern Gulf Coast for decades. In her new book, Coming to Pass: Florida's Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change, she writes about that place's history, present and future with passion and insight. The book combines careful, wide-ranging research with deeply felt personal experience.

Here is an excerpt.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

I once torpedoed a Valentine's dinner by insisting on the inborn rights of a river. On that long-ago night, I sat with my date, an environmental lawyer, in a local restaurant named Chez Pierre. Candles were lit on every table, and I could smell warm bread baking.

"So I'm finishing the case for Joe Jackson regarding his Kissimmee River property," my boyfriend said, swirling a ruby-red pinot noir in his glass. I had met Jackson, a wealthy, lovely man, and liked him. I knew he wanted to develop his thousands of acres of South Florida landscape, once a rich wetland adjoining the now-channelized river, but I had fervently hoped he would not.

"Why does he have to build houses on that much land in the first place, especially in the Kissimmee's old floodplain?" I challenged.

"It's his legal right," my date replied, spreading butter on a baguette, averting his eyes from mine. "He's got a lot of money invested there. That land is now high and dry, and, if we win this case, he basically gets to do what he likes. He's a sensitive guy, he'll do a good job."

My belly tightened. "But does he truly have that right?" The candle between us guttered. Our debate intensified, turned personal. We began to speak to each other in different languages.

My date pulled back his chair, drummed his fingers on the white-clothed tabletop, "It's simply a matter of the law, Sue," he said. "There's no other way to think about it."

"I feel sure there is a much bigger picture," I insisted, swirling a string of Gruyere cheese from the French onion soup around my spoon. Now I felt just purely mad, cornered as a bobcat by a bulldozer. My voice rose. I verged on a rant.

"What about the wood storks?" I countered, aware that I was hissing. "The herons and the egrets which have already lost most of their habitat? What about the alligators and the turtles and the Florida panthers? Don't they have rights, too?"

"Not like human landowners do," said my date. His eyes had gone distant, even cold. "Please lower your voice. Let's just drop it for now, okay?"

A waiter delivered creamy chicken crepes, but my appetite had disappeared. My companion, with advanced law degrees, was speaking entirely true to the judicial system that had trained him. But I began to realize that our legal system is a human construct, designed by humans, only for humans, certain humans, wealthy humans. I felt myself level with the river and its creatures and wasn't willing to accept that the property rights we have granted ourselves are absolute.

• • •

For people, the law regarding ownership of the beach is fairly clear. Below the mean (average) high-tide line is public land, held in trust for all. If you are not a beachfront landowner, you must find access from the road to that public segment of the beach. If you do own land, you have another issue: your property line is, or will be, constantly changing. You bear the risk of losing land to erosion, or the benefit of the natural buildup of sand.

Sea turtles, shorebirds, ghost crabs, and thousands of others do not and cannot arrange their lives according to the parts of the coastline as defined by human law: wet sand or tidelands; the dry sand beach from mean high water to the vegetation line; the uplands between the dunes and the nearest road; and of course, the sea and the sea floor beyond the low-tide line. The animals orient along the edge of the sea, and have evolved over the eons in complete compliance with the movement of the coast. Their bodies are attuned to one whole and dynamic system, what some scientists call a "geologically unified wedge of sand moving up (or down) the coastal plain." Their intrinsic and genuine rights have not yet been recognized by American courts of law, not even the right to life itself. Our legal and economic systems treat the natural world as property that can be exploited and degraded, rather than as an ecological partner with its own rights to exist and thrive.

I once watched a woman collecting live sand dollars from a shallow bar off St. Mark's. She waded near me, knee-deep, fumbling for the flat rounded animals with her toes, and then pulling them to the surface of the water.

"What are you going to do with all those sand dollars?" I asked. For fear of crunching down on their shells, I had been stepping cautiously through the water column.

"I'm collecting them for party favors for my niece's wedding," the woman replied. She wiggled another palm-sized dollar free from the soft sand, and added it to the blue plastic bucket she carried.

"You know they're alive, don't you?" I asked. Her bucket brimmed with at least a hundred sand dollars. Their fine brown movable spines, which formed a feltlike coating over their shells, waved impotently in the cool air.

The woman drew back, no doubt sensing the judgment I couldn't keep out of my voice.

"Yes, I do," she said. "So I'll have to soak them in bleach and let them dry before I can paint them for table decorations."

To this day, I cannot think what more I could have said to that woman, or done.

You know they're alive, don't you?

• • •

The deep pathology of our time, wrote cultural historian Thomas Berry, is to consider our rights and our story as human beings to be different from those of the rest of creation. One of the many consequences of such thinking is that it leads us to believe that our future is unrelated to the fate of the rivers, the shorebirds, or the sand dollars.

Coming to Pass:

Florida's Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change

By Susan Cerulean

University of Georgia Press, 292 pages, $29.95

Meet the author

Susan Cerulean will be a featured author at the free 23rd annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 11:15 a.m. in USF Davis 130. festivalofreading.com.

Animals and their property rights 10/16/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2015 5:53pm]
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