by Marsha Rakestraw

One of the concepts we humane educators often explore with others is the circle of compassion we each have.

Whom/what do we include in our circle? How can we expand our circle to include others we hadn’t previously considered, including nonhuman animals and the natural world?

(Circle of Compassion and Alien in the Ethical Universe are examples of two of our activities that explore this concept.)

Often this recognition that the needs and interests of animals and nature are worthy of consideration and respect — and that they are deserving of rights — has been limited.

Now conversations about these issues are appearing on the international stage, and actions are being taken around the world, in the constitutions of countries and in ordinances in small towns.

Recently, a judge in Argentina declared that Cecilia, a chimpanzee who has lived alone in a concrete enclosure at a zoo, is a being who is “subject to nonhuman rights” and must be released and sent to a sanctuary.

Other recent examples of expanding our compassion to include animals and nature include:

In 2015 New Zealand recognized animals as “sentient beings” and banned using animals for cosmetic testing. Quebec also passed legislation recognizing nonhumans as sentient and requiring added protections for some animal species.

Ecuador, in 2008, and Bolivia, in 2011, recognized the right of nature to exist. Bolivia’s law even designated the natural world as a “legal personality.”

In Pennsylvania in 2014, an ecosystem – the Little Mahoning Watershed – filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit to defend its own rights.

And just last month, more than 170 countries, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, approved two resolutions which recognize “the rights of nature as a fundamental and absolute key element in all IUCN’s areas of intervention and decision making.”

A few years ago Yes! Magazine wrote a great article about several campaigns to recognize and establish the rights of ecosystems and animals. From small communities striving to pass ordinances to protect their communities (including the air, water and earth of those communities), to scientists and philosophers advocating for cetaceans and other sentient beings to be known as “nonhuman persons,” there are efforts blossoming around the world.

And, as the article said, “Granting rights to animals and ecosystems would transform them into something resembling people in the eyes of the law, with huge impacts on how communities and corporations interact with nature.”

Stories like these mark an important opportunity for humane educators and changemakers.

Not only are concepts such as rights, property, legal standing, and other issues worthy of discussion and exploration themselves, but this growing reframing of our relationships with animals and the natural world provides us with a chance to help people of all ages expand their circles of compassion and to empower them to create greater positive change both in their own lives and in the global community.