Why The Nonhuman Rights Project Could Be Huge

We all have animals we care about, and we all do what we can to defend them. That is important, and makes a difference. But the single most important obstacle to more humane treatment of animals globally is that they have no legal rights. None. Change that, and you put the fight to defend and protect animals onto an entirely new playing field.

That’s exactly what the Nonhuman Rights Project is trying to achieve, and that’s why it is potentially the single most powerful campaign for animals there is. It can sometimes be hard to understand what the NhRP is all about and what their approach is. But recently, in a series of brief  posts on their website, they have perfectly captured what  they are up to and why it could be such a breakthrough for animals.

First, NhRP explains the hard fact that, despite what you may think, animals have no rights at all in the eyes of human law:

Hundreds of organizations say they work for “animal rights.” But the only animal with legal rights is the human animal. No other animal has any rights at all. None.

How come?

To have a legal right, one must have the “legal capacity” for a right. If one has this capacity for a legal right, one is a legal “person.” No nonhuman animal has been recognized as a legal “person,” This means that no animals, other than humans, have legal rights.

Statutes provide some protection for some nonhuman animals. It may be illegal to starve a circus elephant or withhold medical care from a chimpanzee in a zoo. But the elephant and the chimpanzee have no legal right to that kind of care. (Similarly, statutes may prevent you from stealing someone’s car, but the car has no legal rights, as the car is not a legal person with the capacity for any legal right.)

Second, they explain how they hope to bestow legal rights on animals in the same way that civil law, thanks to Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of Court of King’s Bench, first granted legal standing to slaves in the case of James Somerset:

In Western law, every nonhuman animal has always been regarded as a legal “thing.” We buy, sell, eat, hunt, ride, trap, vivisect, and kill them almost at whim. The reason is that legal “things” don’t exist in law for their own sakes. They exist for the sakes of legal “persons,” which we humans all are.

Legal “things” are invisible to civil law judges. They possess no legal rights and have no hope of ever having them.

A court confronted by a claim to any legal right need begin by determining the plaintiff’s species. If the plaintiff is human, the answer is “It is possible. She is a legal person.” If the plaintiff is a nonhuman animal, the answer is “Impossible. He is a legal thing.” [snip]

…A similar [to James Somerset] common law transformation of a nonhuman animal from legal “thing” to legal “person” is a primary objective of the Nonhuman Rights Project which seeks, through litigation and education, to persuade American state high courts to transform a nonhuman animal plaintiff the way Lord Mansfield transformed James Somerset: by declaring she is a legal “person” capable of possessing legal rights.

Once a court recognizes this, its next legal question will appropriately shift from the irrational, biased and overly simplistic question, “What species is the plaintiff?”, to the rational, nuanced, value-laden and policy-enriched question, “What qualities does the plaintiff possess that are relevant to the issue of whether she is entitled to the legal right she claims?”

And if any court were to ask that question, NhRP knows exactly the initial rights it will try to pursue:

We begin by seeking two kinds of fundamental rights for our nonhuman plaintiffs: bodily liberty and bodily integrity.

Bodily liberty means not being held in captivity. For a chimpanzee, it means not spending life in a laboratory; for an elephant, it means not being chained in a circus; for a whale it means not being imprisoned in a park.

Bodily integrity means not being touched without consent or in one’s best interests. For a chimpanzee, it means not being subjected to biomedical research. For an elephant it means not being beaten at a circus. For a whale it means not being forcibly inseminated to make her pregnant.

Do not confuse these fundamental rights of nonhuman animals with so-called “human rights.” Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. Dolphin rights are for dolphins. Elephant rights are for elephants.

To get there, NhRP is looking for the right animal, in the right state (Lolita is a potential candidate), to try and achieve the same breakthrough achieved with the James Somerset case. They are planning to file the first lawsuits by the end of this year, and be litigating them in state courts in 2014.

This could be huge, and NhRP is well worth keeping a close eye on (and supporting).



6 thoughts on “Why The Nonhuman Rights Project Could Be Huge”

  1. Thanks for the great coverage, Tim. I’ve been with the NhRP as a volunteer for about three years, and you just laid out the reasons why. The NhRP truly is a revolutionary group, and should be supported by everyone truly interested in protecting the other species that call this planet home.

    1. If I was overtly religious I would sail a couple of Hail Mary’s or Amen but I am not overtly religious but can only say that it is about time we actually gave animals some sort of status so we can punish those who perpetrate horrendous crimes against them!

  2. Another good story Tim.

    I hope this doesn’t go down the same road as Humans where we have a ‘legal fiction’ created to represent us that was done without our knowledge or consent. The legal fiction that is one’s name in full capitals as opposed to their name properly capitalized.

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