For many years, Steven Wise, lawyer and President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, the only organization currently fighting to give some nonhuman ("animals") legal rights such as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and his co-workers, have worked almost 24/7 to achieve this goal. In a recent interview with Steven Colbert called "Colbert Talks Legal Rights for Animals with Steven Wise" all of the pertinent issues including autonomy, personhood, justice, and rights are raised in just over five minutes, in a way that even non-experts will be able to grasp why Mr. Wise and others are working so hard on this project. For example, autonomy means that an individual is able to think about the past, think about the future, think about how she or he wants to live life, and display self-determination.
Animals are not things
The mission of the Nonhuman Rights Project is "through education and litigation, to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere 'things,' which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to 'persons,' who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them." You can read more about this work (and also a historical perspective) in a recent essay by Charles Siebert in the New York Times called "Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?" and also in the summary of this interview with Mr. Colbert.
In an email to me on 13 December, 2013, Mr. Wise provided more of the details of his seminal work: The first week of December, 2013 saw the Nonhuman Rights Project file three New York lawsuits that demanded judges issue common law writs of habeas corpus on behalf of four chimpanzees imprisoned in the state of New York. Kiko and Tommy are being held on private property, while Leo and Hercules are held at Stony Brook University, where they are forced to participate in locomotion research.
These three suits are the first salvos in the Nonhuman Rights Project’s open-ended strategic litigation campaign to persuade common law high courts to recognize that such nonhuman animals as chimpanzees should not longer be treated as “legal things” that lack the capacity for any legal right. Instead the Nonhuman Rights Project demands that high courts recognize the chimpanzees as “legal persons” with the capacity for one or more legal rights and that these legal rights should include the common law right to bodily liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus.
In support of their argument, the Nonhuman Rights Project submitted 150 pages of Affidavits by nine of the finest working primatologists in the world, including Tetsuro Matsuzawa from Japan, William McGrew from England, Christophe Boesche from Germany, and Mathias Osvald from Sweden. These affidavits detail that chimpanzees are autonomous beings who possess such complex cognitive abilities as an autobiographical self, episodic memory, self-determination, self-consciousness, self-knowingness, self-agency, referential and intentional communication, empathy, a working memory, language, metacognition, numerosity, and material, social, and symbolic culture, an ability to plan, engage in mental time-travel, intentional action, sequential learning, mediational learning, mental state modeling, visual perspective-taking, cross-modal perception, an ability to understand cause-and-effect, the experiences of others, and an ability to imagine, imitate, engage in deferred imitation, emulate, innovate and use and make tools. All documents filed in each court, and any decisions, may be found at www.nonhumanrights.org.
It is essential to note that Mr. Wise is not concerned with all nonhuman animals, and while that irks some people, I think that just as The Great Ape Project had to begin somewhere, with the nonhuman beings who have the best chance of being granted legal rights, if successful, this work can set a precedent for extending rights to other animals. In my essay in the book titled The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity I argued that in some ways this project is speciesistic, but understandably so, and I later wrote an essay called Deep Ethology, Animal Rights, and the Great Ape/Animal Project: Resisting Speciesism and Expanding the Community of Equals. One of my major goals in this essay was to make the case that the time has come to expand The Great Ape Project (GAP) to The Great Ape/Animal Project (GA/AP) and to take seriously the moral status and rights of all animals by presupposing that all individuals should be admitted into the Community of Equals. University of Tennessee psychologist Gordon Burghardt also makes the same point in his review of The Great Ape Project published in the journal Society and Animals (1997, volume 5, pages 83-86).
We human animals don't have to worry if nonhuman animals are granted legal rights
I was thrilled to see that Mr. Colbert wanted to talk with -- actually he often talks at -- Mr. Wise. However, the humor and sarcasm were catalysts for what I think is an excellent discussion of the nonhuman rights project and why it deserves global support. Indeed, Mr. Wise held his ground and by playing along with Mr. Colbert a lot of information was discussed. I hope this brief interview will be widely viewed, discussed, and shared. The lives of far too many sentient beings who care about themselves, their family, and their friends are on the line. And, human animals do not have to feel threatened by Mr. Wise's work. Indeed, we too will benefit by expanding the circle of rights, and a goal of justice for all is a difficult one to dismiss. What a great lesson for youngsters.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also), and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)