Nonhuman Rights Will Start With A Chimp

Do I look like property? Or like a thinking, feeling, nonhuman being?

For years, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been mapping the legal terrain, state by state, and animal by animal, to try and find the best case it can make on behalf of winning some legal rights for a nonhuman animal. According to the Boston Globe, the first case sometime later this year, will be on behalf of a chimpanzee:

In the next few months, an animal advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file a case on behalf of its first animal client. It has already chosen the plaintiff, a captive chimp, on whose behalf it plans to file a writ of habeas corpus and ask a state court judge to grant the chimp’s liberty.

Their goal is to win animals a toehold in the world of legal rights—a strategy that is the culmination of more than two decades of writing and legal work by lawyer Steven Wise and an allied group of attorneys, scientists, and animal activists. They hope to have an animal declared a “person” in a court of law, breaking down a legal barrier between humans and other species that has stood for millennia.

Over the last century, animals have enjoyed a steady march in legal protections. Once treated no differently than inanimate objects, today they can’t be abandoned, beaten, or deprived of food, shelter, or veterinary care. Despite these protections, however, animals are still legally considered property. And for Wise and others, given what we now know about the biology and inner lives of animals, this is no longer a tenable distinction. It is time, they argue, to grant at least some species fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from captivity—and the surest way to accomplish that is for those animals to join human beings as legal persons.

How NHRP got there, and how the campaign will unfold, is also interesting:

Their choices were limited to a handful of species known to score high on practical autonomy, which included elephants, chimpanzees, cetaceans (dolphins, orcas, and other marine mammals), and African gray parrots. But there were other considerations, too. For instance, they’d have a stronger case with a charismatic animal being kept in what Wise calls a “dire” living situation, so that pretty much ruled out the parrots. In addition, they would need to have a wildlife sanctuary lined up to adopt their plaintiff if they prevailed. The lack of such sanctuaries for cetaceans ruled out dolphins and orcas. Likewise, while they were zeroing in on an elephant plaintiff this spring, neither of the two elephant sanctuaries in the United States had any more room. That left chimps.

To avoid tipping off the chimp’s owner, they won’t disclose the identity of their plaintiff until they are ready to go to court this fall. Armed with affidavits from scientists, including Jane Goodall, about chimps’ capacities, they will argue that their plaintiff deserves a right to liberty, and that its captivity is a violation of that right.

Win or lose, they plan to bring more habeas petitions on behalf of other animals, hoping to win enough small victories to lay a foundation of precedent for animal personhood. It’s unlikely to be a quick and easy fight, but Wise says he accepts that he’s in the animal-personhood game for the long haul. “This is a long-term, strategic, open-ended campaign,” he says.

The Globe does a nice job of looking at the legal and philosophical debate over Wise’s strategy. But at least Wise has a strategy, and any toehold he can win for animals will be a long overdue start to changing the exploitive and destructive relationship humans have with many nonhuman species. 


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